Depressed Dave, by Mak, a Singaporean comics artist, is a webcomic that’s been running since December 2017. The comic, loosely based on Mak’s life, chronicles the titular character’s experience with severe depression. Mak balances Dave’s story with explanations of depression’s causes, effects, and strategies to address it. The “explainer” strips help us understand what Dave is experiencing and why he behaves the way he does; the storytelling lets us feel something of Dave’s struggle. Depressed Dave can help depressed people understand their condition and their options, and can serve as a handbook for those who love depressed people, providing them with insight into what the person they love is going through, and tips on how to support them.
Mak cites Jim Davis, Goscinny, and Uderzo as some of his favourite cartoonists, but you won’t see much of their influence in his work. Rather, Depressed Dave most immediately recalls Randall Munroe’s XKCD. Like Munroe, Mak uses stick figures and simple diagrams as the basic elements of his visual grammar. There may be readers who won’t take Mak seriously as a comics creator because of the simplicity of his visual approach, but people who equate “mastery of the comics language” with “drawing within a narrow concept of ‘artistry’” fail to understand the core strength of the medium: its ability to combine words and symbols to convey meaning that neither could on its own.
Mak’s style is a product of necessity. Mak was not an aspiring cartoonist who decided to write about depression; he was a person suffering from depression looking for a way to tell his story and “got into comics by chance.” Mak knew it would take years to learn to draw like his heroes, so he started experimenting with stick figures, and quickly learned how to harness the comics medium’s core strengths. Comics force him to “to think through [his] message, break it up into appropriate pieces, and refine it.” Mak provides the readers with as much information as they need, and trusts them to follow where he’s taking them. A strip about how hard basic tasks can be for a depressed person conveys the effort required to kick off the blankets and get out of bed. Our eyes are drawn to the only thing that moves: the hands of a clock counting out the ninety minutes it takes our hero to screw up the courage to face another day. A single leaf blowing past interrupts the otherwise static tableau of the last two panels of a strip in which Dave’s girlfriend tells him that her parents want to meet him tells us what we need to know: this is not good news for Dave.
Mak notes that while “depression is way too complex to encapsulate in any one medium,” comics allows him to address serious questions in a less intimidating way. Moreover, representing people in the most elementary fashion helps readers see Dave’s story as their own. While Dave is gendered male, in the absence of a specific face and body, he could be almost anybody.
Besides letting him raise awareness around mental health issues, Depressed Dave plays a therapeutic role for Mak. Working on the comic (and its associated blog) helps Mak “exercise [his] mind in the limited way it works now”; he feels “less helpless doing these things rather than not.” Mak’s struggle with depression began in 2006, and his current condition means he has had to stop working. Depressed Dave gives us an insider’s view of life with depression. Depression limits the choices we have, makes us feel trapped inside our own heads, leaves us feeling “Hopeless. Helpless. Sick,” makes us hate ourselves, and imposes an internal monologue that continually points out our shortcomings and makes us unable to accept it when those who love us try to remind us why; it makes us forget that our being alive is of value.
Besides giving us a glance at the interior life of depression, Mak writes about the clinical science of depression. While getting a medical diagnosis may bring with it a sense of relief, it also can leave us with more questions than answers. Mak takes a complicated condition, one that people experience in their own particular way, and outlines general principles to help us understand where depression comes from and how we can fight it. Mak gives us a three-pronged analysis of depression: biology, psychology, and social settings. To treat depression, we have to explore options in three distinct areas: medication, therapy, and our relationships with others.
Almost 15% of Americans take anti-depressant medication, yet these drugs are still widely feared and stigmatized. Dave initially resists the idea of taking meds, but his experience eventually reveals their benefits. That said, meds are not a simple solution: they may “help a patient’s brain adjust itself,” and “give patients a fighting chance,” but they are only one part of a holistic approach.
If meds give us a “fighting chance,” much of the actual combat takes place in therapists’ offices. The process of going deep inside ourselves to confront difficult truths while stepping outside of ourselves to gain a more detached understanding is long, arduous, painful, and, hopefully, productive. Mak’s analysis of the process mirrors my experience: a key moment in my ongoing recovery was learning how coping strategies that I had developed over the course of my life were no longer working, leaving me less able to deal with daily challenges and less able to live the life I wanted to.
Therapy can also give us tools for dealing with depression. The most common therapeutic approach for depression and anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT]. CBT helps us explore negative thoughts and feelings – that’s the cognitive part – and gives us strategies to deal with them – that’s the behavioural part. At the core of those strategies is setting reasonable goals that will provide a sense of achievement, without overwhelming ourselves with tasks that we aren’t ready to tackle. Tasks can range from getting up and taking a shower, for those whose depression is completely debilitating, to, say, “write two hundred words of a comics review” for those whose condition is less severe. The goal is to “break depression’s circles through achievement and enjoyment.” When one can remember to apply its lessons (which can be a challenge in the middle of a panic attack or a depressive episode), CBT is an incredibly effective tool. CBT’s approach is evident in Mak’s analysis of his drawing style. He notes that his minimalism helps him “reach small goals” and helps him to “complete each strip and want to still draw more.”
The third leg of our depression tripod is social relationships. Being depressed wreaks havoc on our relationships with others. I immediately recognized Mak’s description of what he calls the “paradox of loneliness”: depression drives us deeper into ourselves just as we most need those who love us. It’s those people whom we sometimes cannot bring ourselves to face who play the most critical roles in helping us. Dave’s partner Jane his other friends always stand by him; love – even love for a pet – plays as important a role as meds and behavioural modification in the process of recovering from depression. Again, this reflects Mak’s own experience: he credits his wife, his children, and two guinea pigs for reminding him to “breathe and be thankful,” and that he “can be useful in small ways.”
That said, not everybody who wants to support a depressed person know what they’re doing: Mak’s insights might help keep well-intentioned people from saying or doing things that end up causing more harm than good. Advice that is rooted in ignorance is sometimes ridiculous, and risks making the intended beneficiary feel worse.
And that can contribute to catastrophe. Mak is unafraid to directly address the painful question of suicide: depression kills. Mak’s depiction of Dave’s suicidal episode (spoiler: he doesn’t do it) reveals the extent to which simple drawings and words can convey emotions in a way that is less mediated than text alone. We feel Dave’s hopelessness and how desperately Tim wants Dave to understand that his death would devastate his people. Mak also breaks the fourth wall with a tribute to a friend who took his own life. This poignant reminder of what depression can do tells us why we have to take depression seriously.
Depressed Dave does important work both an educational comic and as a fictionalized memoir. There are a few topics I would love to see Mak write about in the future.
The first of these is the effects that loving a depressed person can have on someone. People observing a supporter’s relationship with a depressed person may wonder what sort of toll it takes on the person in the supporting role. Dave is lucky: his people go to extraordinary lengths to support him. Mak tells us less about the emotional toll that depression can take on the people who support us: Jane admits that living with Dave can be tiring, but she seems to have an endless reservoir of patience, even when Dave’s condition makes him challenging to be around. We need to pay attention to the costs that loving a depressed person can have and explore the complicated feelings – including guilt, frustration, and the desire to move on – that come with the territory. Related to this is the ugly truth that there depressed people who do not have the kind of connections that Dave enjoys. How can we, as a society, give them what families and friendships give people like Dave – a fighting chance?
Also, while we’re starting to become more open about mental illness, much of the discourse frames mental illness as a condition affecting us as individuals. We medicate ourselves and pursue therapy to examine how our unique stories contribute to how we experience depression and anxiety, but we need to think about how our social, economic, political and cultural contexts contribute to mental illness. The increased attention we are paying to mental illness reflects how pervasive it is. The longer I live through this, the more I understand it’s not me: there are too many like me for that to be true. There is something about our times making Dave, and Mak, and me, and quite possibly you, anxious and depressed. If we avoid talking about the shared dynamics of mental illness, and persist in seeing it as an individualized condition, we will never be able to deal with it.
Readers will leave this comic with a deeper understanding of what depression is, what options exist for its treatment and a greater empathy for people who suffer from it. Some will get answers to questions about themselves that they’ve never been able to ask aloud. Read this comic.