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KELLY BREVIG COLUMN: The bootstrap analogy is loaded with assumptions

Kelly Brevig

Inside jokes can take us way back to a distinct time and place, to familiar feelings of deep friendship and understanding. One such time for me came around the age of 16, when my best friend was caught calling in sick (and lying about it) to her job so we could go to the mall. Her mother was furious and her words have been the source of our inside joke ever since. I remember hiding in the bathroom as my friend was getting yelled at, and then the climactic words came out of her mother's mouth that neither of us will ever forget; "When I was your age, I swallowed my puke and pulled myself up by my bootstraps!" It might have been the absurdity of the phrase we had just heard for the first time, but something about that made us laugh. It didn't help the situation.

To this day, every time I hear the phrase, "Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps," I think of my friend. Over the years however, it has taken on a new meaning for me; it has been used in the context of depression. I have heard people say about mental illness; "Just get over it", "I know how you feel", "it's not that bad", "the person is just lazy", "they could change if they really wanted to" and, "Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps." The bootstrap analogy is loaded with assumptions. It passes judgment. The reality is that depression is not an illness that someone can "wish away" or make go away with a cup of tea and a smiley balloon. Depression can be likened to any other ailment of the body; it involves neurons and sometimes actual change in shape of the frontal lobes and hippocampus in the brain. If our heart were to gradually change shape or to lose function, we'd most likely be willing to find out why. We'd most likely seek help. When it comes to depression and anxiety however, there is still a general consensus that we need to remain silent, lest we be judged for it.

Living with depression, anxiety or any other form of mental illness is the reality for millions of people. Depression can feel like extreme lethargy, loss of motivation, withdrawing from friends and family and overall pain and sadness. Depression can mask itself as laziness if a person isolates themselves and sleeps several hours in the day. It can fuel other diseases, compromise immune symptoms, be accompanied by stabs of panic and guilt and flood our bodies with cortisol. Depression is a real beast, it is not made up, and it is not a sign of weakness. PET scans clearly show that a person struggling with major depression has a substantial loss in neural activity. The brain shuts down and there is no energy to think, no strength to fight. One cannot find their bootstraps much less start lifting and levitating. We need to say, "I'm there for you." not, "You're on your own.

To learn more about depression and mental health, a great free online resource comes from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI is filled with excellent facts on depression and anxiety as well as other mental illnesses. It is a very useful tool for self education as well as support for family members who may be struggling. NAMI has updated statistics, free trainings and they run media campaigns to help end the stigma of mental illness. To learn more, visit and for the Minnesota chapters, To find out how you can get involved locally, visit NAMI-Northwoods/Beltrami on Facebook. Together we can help end the stigma of depression and all mental illnesses. We can pull each other up and fight together.

Kelly Brevig is Suicide Educational Services Coordinator for Evergreen Youth & Family Services, Inc.