Depression and Existentialism… Where to Sartre?

Imagine a situation where something occurs beyond your control, and it ends up costing you a job. You flock to those close to you in search of support. Most people’s gut reaction will be to immediately side or sympathize with you. They do that by saying things like “that’s crazy” or “I’m sorry, that’s so depressing” to you. Although these words seem harmless and supportive at first, their deeper meaning is disconcerting. These everyday phrases you hear are just one example of how mental illness is normalized in society. One of the largest categories of mental illness that has been so integrated, is depression. I contend that a majority of people who use the phrase “I am depressed” do not consider the full weight of those words. They view them as a way to express emotion, rather than as an illness. This invalidates the condition that people with real depression face. Depressed people are looked at and often feel as though they are only sad and feel sorry for themselves, rather than as having an emotional disorder. This leaves depression unacknowledged publicly, so that its victim is left neglected and unable to achieve emotional freedom. This emotional freedom is defined as the ability to perceive a situation in a certain light without concurrent external influences, or internal abnormalities.

Refusing to acknowledge that depression exists in any mental health capacity, stems from a societal “Bad Faith” (370) (Figure 1) ideal. This is an idea from Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”, where he asserts that one refuses to confront a situation in order to maintain some sort of innocent state. Sartre uses an example of courting to explain bad faith. If a woman were to go out with a man, but does not want to “make a decision” (380) about her feelings towards him, she will “disarm” (380) any of his phrases of ambiguity in favor of what the “explicit meaning” (380) is instead. She will go through the entire process, completely ignoring what is actually going on, looking only at the direct phrases, not the action or meaning accompanying said phrases. The woman will look at the man as he were a fixed object like a “blue or grey” (381) wall instead of a complex, transcendent person. The woman “is profoundly aware” (381) of what she and the man are doing, but she chooses to ignore it, letting the courtship continue while maintaining an apparent ignorance of the situation. This is another reason why a majority of those with depression are unable to get help in a modern society. The first self deception is with the person who has depression. Many will ignore the signs and symptoms because they are in denial of the problem. They don’t want to have the problem, and as long as a doctor doesn’t say there is one, then there isn’t one. This leads the person to not seek help. This is a similar process that goes on with the friends or family that surround the person. Jerry Kennard, a writer for Health Central, believes that many will “have a degree of awareness” (1) that there is something wrong, but will try to “rationalize” (1) it, so they will not have to confront the situation, as is the case with bad faith. This holds true for both those with depression, and those in close contact with the person. Both the depressed and their contacts will try to excuse their behavior as a bad day, or some other “trivial […] situation” (1) so they will not have to confront conflict. Unfortunately this leads to a closed mindedness and rationalization of the irrationable. If depression is treated as normal behavior, those afflicted will never be able to seek treatment, and they will be viewed as bad people, rather that helpless people. This carries on the social stigma and creates the microaggressive environment, and the downward spiral that keeps a person with depression from achieving emotional freedom.

-How one lives in bad faith, by putting on a mask. Zaejian, Jasenn. Relationships, Anxiety, Depression, and Bad Faith. Digital image. Say Say brook, 14 Apr. 2015 Web. 4 Dec 2015

Figure 1

-How one lives in bad faith, by putting on a mask.

Zaejian, Jasenn. Relationships, Anxiety, Depression, and Bad Faith. Digital image. Say Say brook, 14 Apr. 2015 Web. 4 Dec 2015

Following Sartre, another existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir, further categorizes how this bad faith inhibits freedom across various types of men. In her work, The Ethics of Ambiguity, she contends that freedom in society is at its lowest points in “sub-men” (42) and children. In modern times, society is acting predominantly as a “Sub-Man” (42), and many of those with depression are children. Sub men are those who have “Eyes and ears”, but make themselves “Blind and Deaf” (42), refusing to believe they have any impact in the world. Children “have no means of” (37) giving themselves sight and and are led by the voice of society in most cases. Much like the courting example in Sartre’s work, mankind is aware of the problem that surrounds depression, but refuses to acknowledge it, like a sub-man does. This is especially evident in developing countries where the World Health Organization estimates that 90% (Michael Friedman PhD, “The Stigma of Mental Illness is making us sicker” 1) of those with a mental illness are completely untreated. This phenomenon is explained by Sarah Luczaj, a writer for Counselling Resource, who believes this is because in poorer communities, aware of the stigma surrounding depression, avoids mention of it at all, instead “using words like stress and tension” (1) to describe this negative emotion. This is so that new generations will have a better chance to escape poverty, without having the problem of a mental illness hanging over their head. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect, making the person feeling more isolated and unable to reach out. This stigma is evident by the fact that there are “fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists” (1) serving the whole of India. There are so few psychiatrists because it is near impossible to make a living in a country that believes “the less” psychiatry exists “the less is there reason for” psychiatrists “to exist” (de Beauvoir 43), because mental illness is only official when there are doctors to say it is there. This gives way to the societal belief that if someone never goes to a mental health professional, they will never have mental health problems. It is this reason why the “Sub-man” (de Beauvoir 43) that drives societies shuts down most attempts at controlling this depression pandemic.

Kept in the dark, people with depression become what de Beauvoir calls “grown-up children” who submit to the “paternalism” (37) of society. Because they are surrounded in the situation stated above, in a sort of argumentum ad nauseam fashion, people with depression are kept in a childlike “ignorance” (37), unaware that anything is out of the ordinary. In the same study of India, Sarah Luczaj writes that those living in poorer communities will often complain about “physical” (1) ailments, but almost never about emotional ones. In India, the populous will often talk about “aches and pains” (1) associated with the work of the day, but almost never their emotional state. No “emotions seem allowed” (1) to be expressed. People with depression submit to the will of the majority, and keep their emotional problems confined to their person because that is the social norm. They are usually invalidated, so they feel they are unable to go to anyone in their community without being ostracized. This makes it so there very little treatment of depression. They are then unable to confront “that anguish” (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, 4) of freedom, overcome it, and decide how to go about their illness. They are preserved as children, not knowing about themselves, or about their illness, and must learn to cope with their problems in a narrow way society allows them to, instead of actually confronting the obstacle. Never given the opportunity to develop as people, they are instead sheltered from themselves, believing they have reached maturity. Regrettably, they never actually are able to grow because of societal chains.

Not all those untreated with depression fall into the category of “children”, however, as some are “sub-men” (Beauvoir 43) to themselves as well. This second type of person is someone who knows that there is a problem with their mental health, and refuses to confront it. This kind of “bad faith” (370) (Sartre, Being and Nothingness) is called “Smiling Depression” (1) (Figure 2) according to an article of the same name by Rita Labeaune, a writer for Psychology Today. Those with this condition believe that seeking help for it will make them appear “weak” (1), and if they can “manag[e]” it, there isn’t a problem. Sufferers are in denial of the condition that manifest itself as “anxiety, fear, [or] anger” (1) that interferes “relationships [and] career[s]” (1) in a person’s life. Even though they recognize these problems, they deny that they can do anything about them. Those with smiling depression can put on a “mask” (1), without offering “a hint of their problem[s]” (1), and will actively deny them as a means to save face. Much like the Indian example, people with smiling depression hold a belief that if an expert never says they have a problem, one does not exist. This sort of self deception, combined with the societal pressures leads to a worsening of the problem. Depression is swept under the rug, made to look like a much smaller issue than it is. Society then is allowed to continue its Bad Faith, ignoring the problem.

-Smiling depression is much like a Glasgow smile: A painful fake smile. Heath Ledger, Joker, Smiling Depression. Digital image. Facebook. Facebook, n.d. Web 4 Dec. 2015

Figure 2

-Smiling depression is much like a Glasgow smile: A painful fake smile.

Heath Ledger, Joker, Smiling Depression. Digital image. Facebook. Facebook, n.d. Web 4 Dec. 2015

Further, there is a third type of depression that disallows for any freedom in depressed people. These are what de Beauvoir called “serious m[e]n” (47): those who give their freedom up to unmoving principles. Being rejected and unable to seek help from society, the serious men among the depressed are those who recognize their illness, but give themselves up to it. They believe, because they have not received help, theirs is a permanent condition and they are controlled by it. These serious men, dominated by this principle take advantage of the sub men and children so that they idolize depression. With the onset of social media, technology has allowed people to come together in cohesive groups for support for their mental illnesses.  Unfortunately, Lara Kahn, a writer for thought catalog, believes this has done more harm than good. These communities, instead of offering support to find cures and comfort, have idolized mental illness. She believes that these groups “encourage self harm, self medication” (1) and sometimes even suicide to become an “immortalized […] tragic soul” (1): a noble savage of depression. This can “feed into the attitude” (1) that therapy and medicine is not the answer, but it is better to live as a tragic hero. These ideas are brought into the minds of the followers by the serious men whose ideas dominate the discussions within these groups. He makes the group’s followers not only feel “powerless” (de Beauvoir 48) to stop their illness, but he also makes them “passion[ate]” (de Beauvoir 49) about it. The serious men tell the group that the rest of the modern world has abandoned them, and their only support is with him, and the others in the pack. This creates a new dependency that children and sub-men flock to, and they hand complete authority over to the serious man. He convinces the group to look at the illness as a gift, rather than a burden. This is evident in a study done by The Atlantic. There has been a surge in blogging having to do solely with the “beauty sadness” (1) (Figure 3), or art associated with self harm and depression. With so many apps, the movement of beauty sadness is “easy to join” (1) and take part in. Anyone in the modern age can take pictures of self harm. With the help of photoshop and similar apps, they can turn their depression into art, emulating what they see others in their online community do. This furthers the desensitization of depression, and encourages depressive behaviors as a way to be accepted. These communities use positively reinforce these behaviors with “compassion and pity” (1), which furthers the control of the serious men with their faux-acceptance. This “leads to a fanaticism” (1) that encourages pride in the community, having this unnecessary hardship hanging over them. Believing depression makes them special, depressed persons will actively deny help so they may keep their illness, and continue to be heroized. This control of the serious man is very hard to break, as the people in these groups normalize their illness, and idolize the serious man for taking them to that conclusion.

-An example of "Sadness Beauty." Sadness Beauty. Digital image. Tumblr. Pinterest, 3 May 2015. Web. 4 Dec 2015.

Figure 3

-An example of “Sadness Beauty.”
Sadness Beauty. Digital image. Tumblr. Pinterest, 3 May 2015. Web. 4 Dec 2015.

Upon the serious man taking over, the belief of depression being absolute also takes over. Those within the group do not seek to cure it, yet, live with it, and revel in it. Although many of the sub men take comfort under the serious regime, many find it hopeless. Without any hope to rid themselves of depression, many turn into “Nihilists” who are “disappointed” with the “seriousness” (de Beauvoir 52) in the group. These people give “[them]sel[ves] to a cause which” they find out is “lost” (52) now. They find their current world pointless, and want to cease being. This is the exact progression that happens in Herman Melville’s work, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” In this short story, the titular character, Bartleby, starts at a new copyright firm as a very solid and hard working employee. As time goes on however, he does less and less work, followed by less action all together. He continues to do less until he ceases eating, and dies. Bartleby at first is a prime example of “smiling depression” (Rita Labeaune, “Smiling Depression” 1), as he seems to be a very hard working employee who copes well with stress. The only hint of his condition is when the owner of the firm comments that he works “silently, palely, [and] mechanically” (18), instead of being a “cheerful” (18) worker. He is eventually unable to cope with his condition and ceases activities. His reason for this is that he “would prefer not to” (21) work, or leave the office, or in the end, eat. He specifically uses the word “prefer”, every time he does not do an activity. Much like a nihilist would prefer not to exist, Bartleby never says he will not, cannot, or does not do something, only that he prefers it that way. Nihilists “exist and they know it” (de Beauvoir 53), but they still would like to reject themselves, and find the means to do it. This unfortunately further degrades those with depression into a state where they do not want to find a way out of their illness, they would like to cease being. It is in this way that serious men prompt these sub-men, transformed into nihilists to reject any hope of reaching emotional independence, and life. Even the few nihilists that believe there is hope of reaching such a state, discount it as being any use, as it is existing, not emotion, that is pointless.

In “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, not only does Bartleby represent a disappointed depressed person, but the rest of his firm represents the society around him. Those close to Bartleby noticed a change in personality, and work ethic, but they brush it off as some slump he is going through, and make a joke out of it. The errand boy of the firm, Ginger nut, when asked about Bartleby’s change, responds that he thinks Bartleby is “luny”, and “grin[ning]” (9) as he does so. Ginger nut tosses around his microaggression as if it were not a serious matter. Bartleby’s community is made up of examples of sub men and serious men. Ginger nut recognizes there is a problem, even calling his coworker crazy. He then brushes the entire situation off, because it does not affect him directly. Much like a sub-man in society, he continues to live in his own world, without perceiving the consequences of his actions. He does this despite being in close proximity with and seeing first hand. The boss of the firm also exhibits characteristics of a sub man when instead of calling for help when he notices the degrade of Bartleby’s condition, he leaves the building they work in. Rather than confronting the problem, he believes there will not be a problem if he is not there to witness it. Later on, Bartleby is taken and imprisoned. His guard, showing no care, calls him “deranged” (28), as if it were no different that saying someone has brown hair. Rather than trying to understand the problem, or helping, the guard would rather reject Bartleby with insults, sending him deeper into himself. The guard is representative of the serious men in society, who also notice that there is a problem with depression, yet ignores it because it is not their post to be able to do anything. He resigns himself to some higher power like the prison warden or the state, who will tell him his responsibilities. These characters further represent how a society living in bad faith will reject depressed citizens. Instead of trying to help these people reach emotional freedom, they would rather live in ignorance, as it is more convenient for them.

Invalidation of the mental health field leaves depression under-acknowledged in modern times. This creates a world culture of bad faith and self deception that continues a downward spiral of those with depression. Depressive people are unable to seek help on one hand because society denies the existence of their problem. They are also unable to seek help because those who believe in their illness glorify it. This not only leaves a majority of people with emotional disorders unable to seek therapy, but they are also often left under the emotional control of others. Because of this, they unable to become what they would be without the chains of depression, emotionally free.


Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Print.


Kennard, Jerry. “Denying Depression.” Health Central. Health Central, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <>.      


Beauvoir, Simone De. Ethics of Ambiguity. S.l.: Philosophical Library, 2015. PDF


Friedman, Michael. “The Stigma of Mental Illness Is Making Us Sicker.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 13 May 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <>.       


Luczaj, Sarah. “Depression and Anxiety across Cultures.” Counselling Resource. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 18. <>.


Sartre, Jean Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” (1946): n. pag. Home Pages. Home Pages. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.


Labeaune, Rita. “Smiling Depression.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <>.                                                      

Kahn, Lara. “We Need To Stop Romanticizing Mental Illness.” Thought Catalog. Thought Catalog, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <>  .             


Melville, Herman, and Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener. New York: Dover Publications, 1990. Print.         

By: John Coffey