Why Brushing Your Hair Can Be So Meaningful If You Have Depression – SELF

The conversation around depression has improved in recent years, with people working to help fight stigma while starting a conversation about how common this mental health issue really is. But there are some less discussed elements of depression—and one woman is shining a light on one that experts say is actually very common.

In a Facebook post that’s gone viral, Katelyn Marie Todd details how she recently brushed her hair for the first time in four weeks. “It was matted and twisted together. It snapped and tore with every stroke,” she wrote. “I cried while I washed and conditioned it, because I forgot how it felt to run my fingers through it. I brushed my teeth, too, for the first time in a week. My gums bled. My water ran red. I cried over that, as well.”

Todd says she “couldn’t stop sniffing” her hair and arms when she got out of the shower. “I’ve avoided hugging people for a while, because I never smell good,” she wrote. “I always smell like I’ve been on bed rest for a week. I have no clean clothes, because I’m too tired and sad to wash them.”

“Depression isn’t beautiful,” she continued. “Depression is bad hygiene, dirty dishes, and a sore body from sleeping too much.” Todd says that due to her mental illness, she only has three friends left and likens them to saints due to their love and patience. “Depression is crying until there’s no more tears, just dry heaving and sobbing until you’re gasping for your next breath,” she wrote. “Depression is staring at the ceiling until your eyes burn because you forget to blink. Depression is making your family cry because they think you don’t love them anymore when you’re distant and distracted. Depression is somatic as well as emotional, an emptiness you can physically feel.”

Then Todd issued a plea for those who know someone suffering from depression. “Please be easy on your friends and family that have trouble getting up the energy to clean, hang out, or take care of themselves,” she wrote. “And please, please take them seriously if they talk to you about it. We’re trying. I swear we’re trying. See? I brushed my hair today.” To date, over 199,000 people have reacted to her post, and over 267,000 have shared it.

Depression is an incredibly common mental illness, meaning Todd is far from alone in her struggles.

According to the American Psychiatric Association depression impacts one in 15 Americans in any given year—and women are more likely than men to experience the mental health disorder. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, the World Health Organization said in a statement in late March. According to WHO, more than 300 million people live with depression.

Signs of depression include five or more of the following symptoms persisting for more than two weeks and disrupting a person’s life: sadness, hopelessness, depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable, a change in weight or appetite, a change in activity, insomnia or sleeping too much, lack of energy, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of death or suicide.

But personal hygiene can also be impacted in severe cases. “Even the more ‘basic’ activities can feel like a major chore,” psychologist Paul Coleman, Psy.D., author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces, tells SELF. “It is not uncommon in severe depression to stop or reduce self-care.” Miami-area licensed clinical psychologist Erika Martinez, Psy.D., tells SELF that there is a negative correlation with depression and activities of daily living, i.e., the things you need to do often for self-care—the greater the severity of depression, the less likely someone is to perform personal grooming and hygiene.

Depression can impact people on such a fundamental level because taking care of yourself requires energy, effort, and the belief that you’re worth it.

People who suffer from depression don’t tend to have these in abundance, licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D., tells SELF. “Hopelessness sets in, and hopelessness can fuel feelings of worthlessness that preclude a sense of self-pride and respect in a circular way: ‘I am worthless, so why should I bother?’ becomes ‘I can’t be bothered, so I feel even more worthless,’” she explains.

Coleman says that a person with depression will usually experience a gradual shift away from self-care: As a person’s situation becomes more oppressive, they get more depressed and less likely to take care of themselves. However, Martinez says it can be sudden as well in some cases. “It is more common when an impactful life event like a job loss, breakup, or divorce, has occurred in someone’s life,” she says.

There can be subtle signs someone is sliding into different self-care patterns due to depression, per Clark. For example, a loved one who always blows out her hair and suddenly stops without reason (coupled with other symptoms of depression), or wearing the same clothes repeatedly when they’ve always taken pride in their appearance, may be signs that they’re struggling.

If you start to see changes in a loved one’s hygiene habits, it could be a sign of depression.

Martinez recommends collecting a list of doctors that they can see, sitting with them as they make initial calls (or making the calls yourself, depending on the situation), and driving them to the first few appointments. “With the person’s permission, you may be able to speak with their therapist about other ways you can help your loved one that are more specific to their situation and causes of depression,” she says.

Coleman also recommends helping a person with depression define and perform small tasks to help them realize they’re capable of accomplishing things. The timing of these duties can matter. “Earlier in the day is better because depressed people will delay doing tasks hoping to ‘feel up to it’ later on but probably will not do it later on and then feel worse about themselves,” he says.

Above all, Clark says it’s important to avoid judgment and come from a place of love—even though it can be challenging at times. “It can be hard to understand how someone could simply not get out of bed or clean themselves, and even harder not to be alarmed by it,” she says. “Patience and compassion can help your loved one know you care, as can rational reminders that they are depressed and need help. Offering hope is probably one of the most powerful things you can do.”

If you’ve noticed these—or other—signs of depression in yourself, know that help is out there. You can visit the National Institute for Mental Health and National Alliance on Mental Illness websites for more information. If you believe you’re depressed, talk with your primary-care doctor or contact a mental-health professional. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for more immediate help. Whichever course you choose, remember that depression is in fact treatable, and talking to someone is the first step in finding relief.

Related:

Watch: What Everyone Gets Wrong About Eating Disorders