Why depression is like drowning

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"I'm drowning in depression, and no one cares." | Photo Credit: ©Tina / Adobe Stock

Why depression is like drowning?

Are you drowning in depression? Are you drowning in sadness? Read about why depression is like drowning- the similarities are striking.

On World Mental Health Day, I shared my story on Made Visible Podcast – which highlights life with invisible illnesses. I was asked what language I use to describe depression so that those around me can understand. Here’s what I came up with.

Depression is like drowning. You’re in an ocean, and everyone is chilling on the sand while yelling at you to “Just swim!”

People who can swim drown. All the time. And it’s not because they don’t know how to swim. People drown because they couldn’t stay above water. Because the current was so strong, it kept pulling them under. Because they eventually tired of treading and fighting a tide that was simply more powerful.

I’m drowning in depression and no one cares

Telling someone who is depressed to just “be positive” is like watching a drowning person and yelling from the sidelines, “Just swim! It’ll be ok!”

Telling someone who is depressed to just “change their way of thinking” is like telling a person who is drowning to switch to breaststroke.

When someone is drowning, you jump in and take them out of the water. 

You throw in a life raft. You act. Because they need HELP.

Depression is the same. That is why depression is like drowning.

"I'm drowning here, and you're describing the water"

On a good day, when the waters are still, we can swim. But depression is like those tides and currents that you can’t control, no matter how good of a swimmer you might be.

They sometimes appear out of nowhere, and without warning, you are suddenly sucked in. You are unable to breathe. There is nothing to cling to as you feel yourself being submerged.

And in that moment, more than anything, we need someone to jump in and pull us out of the water. We need HELP.

But here’s the thing.

Drowning doesn’t look like drowning. Ironically enough, many swimmers drown because the people around them are unable to spot it. We think drowning consists of violent splashing and screams for help, but it doesn’t look like that at all.

Here’s what an article from WebMD says about drowning:

“In the public’s mind, someone who is drowning is waving frantically and calling for help, and that’s just not the way it is,” says Alan Steinman, MD, an expert on drowning and sea survival.

The call for help may come first, but when someone is actually beginning to drown, they are desperate for air. 

“They’re silent and struggling just to keep their nose and mouth above the water,” says Steinman. “Their arms are outstretched, trying to keep themselves up out of the water. It’s a very quiet, desperate posture.”

This is what drowning looks like

This silent, almost calm behavior is called the instinctive drowning response. It was detailed by lifeguard and water rescue expert Francesco Pia, PhD.

Pia goes on to outline what drowning really looks like:

  • Silent: There’s no spare breath to call for help.
  • Bobbing up and down: their mouth sinks below the water’s surface, pops up just enough to breathe and sinks back down.
  • Stiff-armed: Instead of waving for help, their arms are out to the side, hands pressed down on the water to keep him afloat. They can’t even reach out to grab a life preserver.
  • Still: They won’t be kicking. Their body will be straight up and down, almost like they’re standing in the water.

A drowning person will only be able to stay like this for 20-60 seconds before going underwater.

If you don’t get to them soon enough, Steinman says, they will start to submerge. People often miss the chance to help because they don’t know what’s really going on.

Depression is just like that, which is why depression is like drowning.

What is it like to live with depression?

For many of us, when we think of a mental health crisis, we think of tears, anguish, and loud cries for help.

In fact, a mental health crisis is often painfully silent. Living with depression requires massive amounts of energy to survive. Like the person drowning, there is no spare breath to call for help. We become still, we dissociate, and we isolate. And if someone doesn’t come to rescue us in time, we disappear.

Depression is often invisible. Many of us learn how to mask our desperation. Over the years, we’ve developed a unique set of tools to hide what we really feel, because we live in a world that values positivity and general feel-good bubbliness. Professional aquatics safety and water rescue consultant, Gerry Dwarkin says, ”When a person is actually drowning, in many cases they seem to be playing.”

And this is what I want you to understand. People living with depression laugh. They smile. They joke (brilliantly, I might add). We often do this to make YOU feel comfortable. But deep down inside, we are suffering. And, like the person drowning, we don’t have the energy to even reach out to grab a life preserver.

And so, we begin to submerge. Months could go by before you realize you haven’t heard from us in a long time. You wonder why we don’t respond to messages. Or why we don’t come hang out. You begin to think it’s about you. Or that we are a bad friend. You stop inviting us out, and then dismiss us altogether.

But if you learn to spot the signs, you may be able to jump in and help in time. But, what does help look like?

This is different for everyone. This summer I went through a major depressive episode that left me bed-ridden and unable to eat for about a week. 

A friend happened to message me and I shared my desire to take my own life. She immediately insisted that I come to her house (which was about an hour away). But I’m glad I went. She fed me. We talked. She pulled me out of the water.

"Depression is an illness that tells you that no one cares. We need you to speak above those lies"

Corinne Gray

How to help someone living with depression?

  • One of the best things you can do for someone living with depression is to be present.
  • Keep in constant communication (even if we don’t reply right away).
  • Show up and cook a meal for us. We haven’t eaten in a while.
  • Show up and say nothing and just binge-watch trashy TV with us.
  • Ask if there is a particular task we need help completing. We’ve been busy bobbing up and down the water, we haven’t been able to tend to anything else.
  • Listen to us, but don’t force us to talk about it.
  • A lot of times, silence is ok (wanted, even).
  • If you’re unsure of what to say, ask what would make us feel better.
  • Send funny memes.
  • Tell us you love us. Depression is an illness that tells you that no one cares. We need you to speak above those lies.
  • Resist the urge to give advice. If you don’t have our diagnosis, and if you’re not a mental health professional, chances are your advice won’t help: it could hurt. I’m going to repeat that. I don’t care how many blogs you’ve read, what your guru says, or how many affirmations you recite. If you don’t have our diagnosis, and if you’re not a mental health professional, skip the advice.
  • Most of all, don’t judge us. Don’t judge what you see. Remember, like drowning, depression doesn’t look like what you think it should.
So, on this day and every other day, can I ask that we be more mindful about what we say to those living with mental illness?

Can we be more aware of how we talk about mental illness and how we often use the term as an insult?

Can I ask that we make an effort to listen and not judge?

Can I ask that we take a proactive step in learning about and understanding an often invisible experience that is real for 970 million people around the world?

I get that it’s not real for you. But 970 million of us are not making it up.

Depression is real. Mental illness is real.

Now is the time for you to show your humanity is real.

Photo for an article on why depression is like drowning. A person in a blue dress is under water, motionless, but alive.
Depression feels like you’re drowning in an ocean, and everyone is chilling on the sand while yelling at you to “Just swim!"  Image credit: ©​​Tina / Adobe Stock 
Article by
Corinne Gray

Corinne Gray, the author of "Why depression is like drowning," started URevolution with her husband and sister-in-law in 2017 because she got excited by the idea of an inclusive society for people living with chronic illness or disability.