Arzu Jabbarli*, 22, suffers from what they** call "pain of spirit."
Unlike many people with depression in Azerbaijan, Arzu is open to treatment. For the past month they have been seeing a psychologist.
"Laughter is a part of human nature, as is crying and grief. I've come to accept that it's normal to cry," Arzu said.
But they are still cautious about speaking openly about their condition.
“It's best not to tell people about it. Because if you say, ‘I'm crazy,’ then they will look for something wrong or accuse you of something. I avoid being labeled a drama queen,” Arzu said.
"I did not want to hear my pain until now. Maybe that is natural. If pain in the body is an indication of a health problem, depression is a sign of a mental condition.”
Sociologist Araz Bagirov noted that depression is generally not perceived as a disease by society. “Unlike any other disease, depression is seen as the patient's own fault,” he said.
Writer and philosopher Mark Fisher developed a theory that could explain why some societies have a harder time understanding depression as a disease. In his work, Fisher called the ideology of neoliberal politics as the ideology of “magical voluntarism.” He argued that under the neoliberal ideology of magical voluntarism people are made to believe that the individual has the power to achieve everything he wants and wants to be.
The impact of this ideology and the power of its illusions on individuals suffering from depression is particularly striking. The person who is suffering feels responsible for their “failings” and, even during their most severe bouts of depression, are pressured to ignore their own disease.
Part of the illusion can be traced back to the Victorian age, which continues to influence modern rules of morality. In particular, the Victorian idea that a person deserves happiness only if they first achieve career success and social status. As a result, people who suffer from depression feel pressure to pretend everything is fine, putting on a mask in their community, in an effort to belong and succeed.
French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that people who are different, especially due to a condition that affects the mind, are isolated from the rest of society, either through therapy or clinics—much like the way people who were considered “others” were isolated in the Middle Ages.
Sociologist Araz Bagirov noted that in Azerbaijan, like most other societies, people are “othered” when they do not conform to certain norms and roles, which can make it difficult for a person with depression to come forward.
“In patriarchal societies like ours…men who suffer from depression are required to be "masculine," and depressive behaviors are considered "inappropriate for men."
Shirin Sefa*, 26, said people who struggle with depression can feel like they are fighting a losing battle: if they show their true feelings, people confuse their depression with “a bad mood.” But if they hide their true feelings and try to act like everyone else, they are accused of “not sharing” their emotions.
“I am often told ‘change your mood.’ When I feel bad, phrases like ‘you shouldn't be upset about such nonsense,’ and ‘life's like that’ make me angry because they make me feel insignificant. After a while, when I decided not to share anything because I thought they didn't understand me, I was accused of not sharing my pain,” Shirin said.
They said that in Azerbaijani society, it is difficult for them to act naturally since people don’t really understand what depression is.
"I cry when I talk about problems or I react very harshly. They see this as hysteria and compare my problems with other people's problems. ‘Look at the people's grievances, what you are complaining about? Everything depends on you. If you want, you can fix it, but if you don't get it, then you don't want to’. I can't explain that such a reaction is not something I did on purpose.”
A reported 264 million people living with depression, according to the World Health Organization. It is unknown how many people suffer from a form of depression in Azerbaijan, and psychologists worry that, due to society’s misconceptions about depression, people are not getting the support they need.
There is also a lack of appreciation for the toll depression has on a person, noted psychologist Jamila Rahimli.
“Sometimes it manifests itself in feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and hopelessness that are formed along with a person's life experience. For someone who experiences these feelings, it becomes quite difficult to follow the routines of daily life, to make plans, to be positive, and the hopes and desires for the future diminish. The individual feels weak and exhausted, and also has negative thoughts about himself,” she said.
Vafa Mehdizade*, 30, has suffered from depression since they were a teenager. They say that people do not take depression seriously, which makes it even more difficult to overcome it.
"People think that depression is a choice, and a depressed person can change if they want to. According to them, you are depressed because you do not work. ‘If you have a job, you will not be depressed’.”
But they said what they need the most is compassion and someone to talk to, not well-meaning (but unhelpful) advice.
"People who do not experience depression do not understand those who suffer from depression. Therefore, they tell the depressed person to try to exercise or eat healthy, or to ‘control yourself’ and so on. Such tips are offensive. Depression already lowers a person's self-esteem, and such suggestions and advice seem hierarchical to a depressed person. However, I just need someone to listen to me, not advice,” Vafa added.
Loghman Gasimov, a psychotherapist, noted that this type of response is common in Azerbaijan.
“There is a wrong method in Azerbaijan that is considered support: people say ‘everything's fine,’ ‘you have nothing to worry about.’ People suffering from depression need understanding, hope and support,” he said. “To be more precise, they need loved ones to feel understood and to know that depression is something that can be treated.”
Psychologist Jamila Rahimli noted that making a person with depression feel understood can be a real help—while labeling or downplaying the disease can be fatal.
"Major depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts,” she said. “By labeling a depressed person, we can directly lead to the death of a person who has lost his sense of self-confidence and value due to unjustified criticism.”
*The names have been changed to protect the identity of the respondents, who fear repercussions from their communities for speaking about depression openly.
**The authors used genderless pronoun, "they, them" as singular pronoun in order to be inclusive of all people and this way readers could avoid making assumptions about gender of protagonists who shared their experiences.