What’s wrong with calling depression “madness”?

“Our perhaps understandable modern need to dull the sawtooth edges of so many of the afflictions we are heir to has led us to banish the harsh old-fashioned words: madhouse, asylum, insanity, melancholia, lunatic, madness. But never let it be doubted that depression in its extreme form is madness.” – William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

Boreas by John William Waterhouse
Boreas by John William Waterhouse

What is wrong with using the word “madness” in relation to depression? I ask because over the years I have received several indignant emails from people insisting that I stop using the word in the title of this website. According to them, I’m adding to the stigma surrounding mental illness and am being politically incorrect to the extreme.

One woman admitted in her email that she wasn’t depressed, which made me wonder why she had appointed herself the guardian of the mentally ill. Why would she think that she knew better than someone who had admitted having severe depression? It reminds me of the man (not disabled himself) who started to berate me for parking in a handicapped space without a handicapped hang-tag before I pointed out to him that I have a handicapped license plate (for my Multiple Sclerosis). He said he was just looking out for my interests. Gee, thanks fella, how about you don’t until you know what you’re talking about?

When I received the first email I was taken aback. I wondered if there was some truth to it. Given that I often rail against the stigma surrounding mental illness, the last thing I want to do is to add to it. After some thought, I recalled two things. One was why I used that title to begin with. When I read Darkness Visible, one passage in particular resonated with me: “I couldn’t rid my mind of the line of Baudelaire’s, dredged up from the distant past, that for several days had been skittering around at the edge of my consciousness: ‘I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.’”

The second thing I thought about was that one of the reasons it took so long for me to realize that I was depressed was, along with the dryness of the symptoms lists I ran across, the pallid nature of the word depression. As Styron says, depression is “…used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the road, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness…preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” It never seemed to apply to the despair and hopelessness I often felt and the occasional mental freefall into darkness.

We use language to diminish or soften things that frighten us. A doctor will tell you that you’re going to “feel some discomfort” instead of telling you that something’s going to hurt like hell. “Depression” is somewhat ambiguous and definitely clinical in tone and makes the disease less frightening. “Madness,” however, doesn’t diminish or cover up the disease in any way – just the opposite. The rawness and power of the word lays it bare and leaves no doubt as to what we are talking about.

See, I don’t think the word itself is the problem. I think the problem is that some people can’t deal with the reality of depression, or what it can be for many of us. It’s much easier to attack the political correctness of the word than to acknowledge that depression can be terrifying enough to burst out of the confines of even the most dry, clinical word we can apply to it.

I like to face things head-on, stare them in the face and see them for what they are. So if you want to sugarcoat your depression, that’s up to you, but I prefer mine straight up and sugar-free. I have been made mad in the past by my illness, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

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  1. I emailed to say how disgusted I am about calling it ‘madness’, and I was given the link to this page. I am STILL angry about it, this page is not good enough. Calling people with depression ‘mad’ is DISEMPOWERING and insulting! however you try to sugar coat it.

    1. Your point of view is legitimate. However, twenty years after reading the William Styron book and starting this website, I still feel that my point of view is legitimate also. If you read my article about my experience with depression, you may see why it led me to feel that the word “madness” applied to me. Or you may not.

  2. I suffer from depression and OCD, and I regularly use the word “madness” (Styron’s quoting of Baudelaire struck me too!). “Depression,” “anxiety,” “mental disorder,” etc. do not, for me, adequately connote the often agonizing mental loops caused by these illnesses. While I understand and laud those who wish to remove the stigma of these disorders, I fear that using such bland terms leads to an equally undesirable outcome: obscuring for non-sufferers the true nature of the afflictions and indirectly contributing to the perception that we are simply weak neurotics.

  3. I think calling it madness is correct. I am not ‘feeling depressed’, I feel like I am dying, I feel mad. Using old fashioned words opens a world of descriptive language to us sufferers, a world of literature.

  4. I have suffered bad depression since my teens and I am now 41. At the moment I find that it is now driving people away from me in a panic, e.g. people are literally showing a look of panic and running away, often leaving behind their credit cards (I work on a checkout till) and car keys. Now I am a friendly person full of empathy and quite vulnerable at the same time, but years of depression and all that entails means the cracks are showing like never before. So I guess a form of madness has set in, maybe for a time or maybe for good I do not know yet. Also my best friend has lived an almost mirror image of my life, and he recently had to go into a local psychiatric hospital to stay for treatment.

    My own upbringing and my individual nature, has meant I have struggled badly to integrate with society, and have felt isolated and lonely since I was a small child. I’m a nice person with a caring nature and I am very artistic and creative (well I was once), but I just feel in total despair and like their is a crushing mental pain inside my soul.

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