If you took a stormy purple triangle, melted it, and stuck a similarly droopy expression on it, you would get Eeyore from Disney’s Winnie the Pooh. This chronically pessimistic character expresses himself in low, monotonous tones that often pitch down at the end. Many think that the Winnie the Pooh franchise chose to personify mental illnesses in each of their fluffy, fantastical characters: Winnie the Pooh himself as binge eating, Christopher Robin as schizophrenia, Piglet as anxiety, and Eeyore as depression. Unfortunately, beyond One Thousand Acre Woods, people struggling with mental illnesses are not scribbled in dreary palettes or slumped over with persistent defeat in their posture.
Maybe you can think of someone, celebrity or friend, whom you were surprised to learn had dealt with or is currently dealing with depression or anxiety. Where does that surprise come from? Their actions, appearances, words —you know, all of it —conveyed general happiness or at least contentment. With celebrities, it’s easier to assume that the public hadn’t yet been made aware of a troubled childhood or to wave a hand towards the crushing pressures of fame. With our own friends, however, it feels more like shock— Like learning that your favorite I’ve-read-it-twenty-times-that’s-how-much-I-love-it book actually had six additional chapters. Your expectations were that you were watching a cartoon kid’s show with talking stuffed animals and a boy with a red balloon — not that you were ingesting euphemistic portrayals of mental illnesses.
This almost instantaneous habit of making assumptions of people’s character based on appearances or a compilation of interactions is what makes mental health hard to spot in someone. We see someone at lunch laughing or smiling and affirm to ourselves that this person is always happy. Scrolling through social media, we find it’s easy to double tap the photo of a trendy coffee shop someone is studying at and assume that they are simultaneously relaxed and diligent. If they’ve painted themselves in a bright yellow, it must mean they are in fact always a happy person. This is the logic our brain jumps for. This is why depression can hide its ominous kingdoms of chaos behind golden gates. So how do we know when our friends need help? Well, it’s actually going to require you to fight eons of instinct. It’s not your or anyone’s fault that our default is to make snap judgments of people based off of appearances or a compilation of interactions. It’s actually in our evolutionary biology.
As highly attuned social creatures, humans are interpreting social cues and modifying existing information about a person every second of every day. It was helpful for our ancestors when they had to quickly identify a friend or foe. Snap judgmentsalso helped us continuously calibrate our position in society and inform ourselves of whether we were necessary to the pack or not. To unpack this a bit, think about how humans lived in caveman ages. We lived in clans. If you weren’t useful to the clan, you were just another mouth to feed and was therefore, in the clan’s eyes, expendable. Being expendable puts your own survival at risk. Thus, we look around at others and guess our standing within our group based off of visual traits like muscle or height.
Millions of years of relying on this behavior and it’s a part in our brain we can’t quite shut off. We still make snap judgements to place ourselves within society. Instead of judging ourselves on more primitive qualities, we now cling onto college acceptances or shiny achievements to tell us where we stand in comparison. (That’s a whole other blog post about why we compare ourselves). So, what’s the solution? Do we start introducing ourselves with our deepest struggles so people have that expectation already set? Or maybe it’s safer to assume that everyone is always in crisis? Well… no. Don’t drive yourself crazy.
Instead, try to occasionally check in with your friends in private settings. Celebrate their successes but also keep cheering for the small things in life. And if you’re comfortable, tell them about when you are struggling with a class or other stresses in your life so that they may feel comfortable reciprocating. So, keep in mind that we can’t just look for the perpetually sad, appropriately colored donkeys that have a gloomy voice to match. We have to look out for everyone, not only the eeyores.