Laziness or depression?
Bear with this piece for a few minutes. It will seem like I am making excuses for that one coworker who keeps calling in sick or that student who shows little effort in class. In our immediate vocabulary, such persons would be called lazy, undisciplined or apathetic. But consider another possibility: at the root of it all could be depression, anxiety or a similar mental health concern that needs to be addressed.
It sounds like a cop-out, certainly. It’s tricky to just throw in the word “depressed” when someone fails to perform his or her tasks or falls short of simple expectations. It’s even more difficult to discuss this in a success-oriented culture, where hard work and material achievement are ideals that elders hope to inculcate in their children. Study hard, get good grades, get a high-paying job and show up every day.
What if you can’t even get out of bed in the morning? In a depressive state, small tasks like this can be a herculean battle. Depression may not show physical symptoms like other illnesses do, but it can be a draining and debilitating condition, sometimes pulling down the most disciplined of us into episodes of sluggishness and ennui.
So how can we tell mere laziness from a clinical condition? Pioneering psychologist John M. Grohol explains: “The key point about clinical depression is that people don’t want to feel that way. It is completely out of their control… Laziness, on the other hand, is a clear and simple choice.”
When a person is being lazy, for example, he or she may simply choose to put off a house-cleaning chore. But someone who has depression may not even register the state of his or her home (or self). “It doesn’t enter into the equation,” says Grohol.
Many other mental health professionals echo this delineation. Psychologist and author Michael Hurd describes it like this: “A truly depressed person says, ‘I don’t choose to feel this way. I really want to be able to get up and go. I wish I could. But it’s hard. It’s like my body is covered in molasses.’”
Psychotherapist Tim Hoffman adds a crucial point: “Despite the fact that they are drained of energy, depressed people often still blame themselves for their lack of activity.”
This self-blame and guilt often lead to a spiral that exacerbates unproductivity. And key to avoiding this slippery slope is recognizing the disorder that underlies it, so that an appropriate response can be made.
Consider that lack of motivation is a major symptom of depression. So are persistent feelings of tedium and emptiness. When these become chronically observable in a friend, a colleague or yourself, it’s worth watching out for other signs. It’s worth seeking out helpful responses, whether it’s consulting a doctor, going to counseling or reaching out to a friend for a start.
The trouble is that our mindsets are currently dismissive of these symptoms. Whether due to a lack of awareness on mental health issues or a willful denial of their legitimacy, our schools, workplaces and family settings do not look so much into underachieving behaviors. Here, it’s just laziness. Typically, they respond by establishing more rigid standards or expectations that set up the depressed for more failure and shame.
Sometimes, even those who are struggling don’t recognize the need to be kinder to themselves. They trudge to work completely drained, except for the feelings of guilt that become their only driver to show up. Taking a mental health day is still an alien concept for many.
It is accepted that activity and positive habits are powerful boosters of mental wellness. Walks, exercise and constructive hobbies are known natural ways to help ease depression and anxiety; in fact, many of those who have emotional struggles deliberately take up these activities in an effort to help themselves.
But when fuel is lacking to do anything at all in the first place, it would be unhealthy to force it out of someone without addressing its mental health roots. Circumstances like these are not helped by misguided judgment and condemnation, but by awareness and compassion. It’s not because we tolerate laziness, but because, with the wealth of information already available to us on mental health, it’s time we looked out for each other’s mental and emotional wellbeing.
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