Depression is more than a fancy word for feeling “bummed out.” It’s a serious condition that manifests differently in each person. It can sometimes be hard to tell if someone you know is depressed… especially if they have smiling depression.
Smiles don’t usually come to mind when we think about depression. But some folks mask their symptoms by putting on a “happy face” and making it appear that they’re perfectly content to the outside world.
What exactly is smiling depression?
Smiling depression is not formally recognized as a diagnosis or active condition by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), American Psychological Association (APA), or other psychology organizations.
It is essentially a term used to describe a person who has depression but appears happy and “put together” to others.
Depression is different for everyone. Symptoms usually come on gradually over time — it can also hit you all at once. But there are some common side effects.
In addition to a chronic feeling of sadness, symptoms can include:
- low energy
- problems sleeping
- fatigue or lethargy
- difficulty concentrating
- feelings of hopelessness
- irritability or mood swings
- avoiding social interactions
- anxiety or feelings of worry
- changes in appetite and weight
- low self-esteem or low self-worth
- loss of interest or enjoyment in things once loved
Folks with smiling depression may experience any or all of these symptoms, but appear totally fine or even happy. To the outside world they might:
- appear to be cheerful, happy, and optimistic
- seem to have high energy levels and a positive outlook
- have a steady job, a healthy family life, and a solid social life
This outward mask can cover the distress they’re really feeling. A person with smiling depression may also have thoughts like:
- They don’t have depression at all.
- The world would be better without them.
- Others have it worse, so they shouldn’t complain.
- Showing signs of depression is a sign of weakness.
- They don’t want to burden anyone with what they’re feeling.
A note on suicide
Low energy is a common symptom of depression, but those with smiling depression may retain average or high energy levels. This might raise the risk of suicide since it’s hard to tell how they’re really feeling.
If you or someone in your life needs help:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
- Stay with them while you wait for help to arrive.
- Remove items that may cause harm like medications, chemicals, or weapons.
- Call 911 if you think someone is in immediate danger, and you are unable to reach them. Calling 911 should be used with caution.
While it can affect anyone, certain factors can put you at a higher risk of smiling depression.
Losing a job, ending a relationship, dealing with literally any aspect of 2020… these are just a few of the life events that can trigger depression or other mental health conditions.
Sometimes the signs and symptoms last a long time. But they can also be situational or short-lived.
Judgements and stigmas
Even in this “woke” era, there are still cultural and social stigmas surrounding mental health. This might make it tough for people with depression to express how they’re feeling.
To avoid judgey stares or snide comments from family, friends, or strangers, slapping on a smile can feel like a safer option than feeling weak or attention-seeking (psst… you’re not either of those things!).
PSA: According to the American Psychological Association, men are less likely to seek mental health support than women.
Figuring out what’s fo’ real and what’s been carefully curated can be tough. This can bring on feelings of comparison and inadequacy. Or, it can make you feel like you have to project an image to be liked IRL or on screen.
Whether we’re putting unrealistic standards on ourselves or feeling pressure from family, friends, or society, living up to expectations can be draining AF. It can be especially triggering for perfectionists, who already hold themselves to impossibly high standards.
Just remember, nobody’s perfect!
Because smiling depression isn’t a formally recognized condition, you can’t be diagnosed with “smiling depression.” But if you are dealing with symptoms of depression and are able to mask them by smiling or appearing happy, you could still be diagnosed with depression.
Chat with your doctor if you think you’re experiencing depression. They can give you a proper diagnosis based on your symptoms. They can also refer you to a mental health professional.
A therapist or psychologist can help you manage your feelings with various forms of psychotherapy. A psychiatrist can also provide you with therapy sessions, and can prescribe meds.
It might be difficult to diagnose
Depression can be hard to pinpoint if you appear happy on the outside.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), common symptoms often conflict with those of classic depression. But depression can still exist and be masked by creating an illusion of happiness.
Talking with a mental health professional can be super beneficial. They can help you come up with a personalized plan to help you manage your feelings.
Depression treatments may include:
- light therapy
- lifestyle changes
- stress management
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Be patient with the process
Treating depression can take time and patience, but you got this. Just know you have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s OK to ask for help!
There are lots of online resources that can provide support.
Lifeline provides services and support via web chat. It’s run by the folks who manage the suicide prevention lifeline.
National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI)
NAMI’s got an awesome list of over 25 resources that will help you find treatment and request financial assistance. They can also keep you updated on the latest research and more.
Is someone you care about dealing with smiling depression? There are ways you can help. First off, never downplay any comments about suicide or self-harm. If they’re feeling suicidal, help them contact a treatment provider. You should also check in with them on the reg.
Here are more ways you can help them:
- Offer to go with them to a medical appointment.
- Be mindful of changes in their behavior or routines.
- Be accepting, supportive, encouraging… and NOT judgmental.
- Note if they’re withdrawing (like if they don’t respond to messages or if they cancel plans).
- Let them know that they have people in their corner and that they’re not alone.
You can also do nice things for them. Bring them their fave food, help them with chores or errands, offer to babysit, or just have a good ol’ fashioned hang. It can go a long way!