Inside Depression

I was told Inside Out was a movie about depression.

I was very late watching Pixar’s latest tear-jerker offering (as in, I watched it for the first time last week), so I had plenty of time to hear what other people thought about the movie, and that was the message that stuck. Inside Out is about depression.

So imagine my surprise when I finally saw it, and didn’t think it was about depression at all. Not even metaphorically. It sounds like it should be — Joy and Sadness go missing, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust to control a twelve year old girl’s brain — but the story only covers a couple of days, and the ultimate message is more about what happens when a person feels unable to express sadness than about mental illness. Although it’s a good tool to approach discussions of depression, especially with children, it’s really a story about mental wellness, and the importance of accepting and processing all emotions, including negative ones.

In fact, I think we do Inside Out a disservice by saying it’s about a girl with depression. Riley struggles with her emotions throughout the movie. as she faces huge change for the first time in her otherwise happy life. But she’s reacting to concrete, immediate events — moving to a new home, losing her friends, being forced to sleep on the floor with none of her possessions, and embarrassing herself at school and at ice hockey. Her key memories switch from happy ones to sad ones as they’re tinged by loss, and that too is totally normal when undergoing that sort of intense change. If we interpret a few days worth of very valid anger and sadness as a story about depression, we’re missing the entire point of the movie, which is that it’s healthy and normal to feel negative emotions too.

But that message is incredibly valuable when thinking about depression. The unhealthy part of Riley’s brain is the insistence that she must always, always be happy. In the movie, this is shown as Joy being a bit of a control freak, taking the expression of any other emotion as a failure on her part and a black mark on Riley’s life. When Riley doesn’t feel happy, she won’t allow herself to be sad, so she’s just left with Fear, Anger and Disgust. And although Riley is a twelve year old girl, I think this emotional struggle applies to people of all ages and all mental health statuses. Many of us, especially women, feel that we have to repress all “bad” feelings and can feel guilty for facing the world with anything other than happiness and gratitude. We worry that our sadness will make others judge us or dislike us, or that our negative emotions make us selfish or bad people.

This struggle can become particularly acute in depressed brains, as we feel that we don’t have a reason to be depressed and so hate ourselves more and more for not being happier. Inside Out tells us to accept Sadness as a valid and important emotion, and that’s a powerful message for all of us fighting against our negative feelings, whatever the context may be.

Inside Out also shows the breakdown of Riley’s “personality islands,” and although in the context of the movie, this is because Riley is confused about her identity after losing most of her old life, the way that her defining traits and interests crumble away is a great visual for the way that depression can seem to steal the things that we value most about ourselves. In the non-depression sense, Riley’s story shows that external change and sadness can alter the key things in our personality, but that these things can come back, stronger than ever. It also suggests that we are not built up of separate worlds — Riley’s family is not separate from hockey is not separate from honesty. They all feed into one another, and they belong on one island together. From a depression perspective, where the breakdown of these defining traits can feel far more damaging and permanent, it also provides hope. These things are not lost forever. They can be rebuilt, once emotional balance returns, and although they may be different, they will also be stronger for what we’ve endured.

Inside Out isn’t about depression, but it does have useful things to say about depression, indirectly, while speaking about mental well-being in general. It’s an exploration of what healthy emotional balance looks like, with an incredibly important message for everyone draining themselves by struggling to regulate their emotions: it’s all right to feel sadness too.

05 comments on “Inside Depression

  • Courtney , Direct link to comment

    I loved Inside Out! At first the character of Sadness annoyed me since she’s initially characterized as such a sad sack, but as the movie progresses and the implications of sadness being a natural way of life, I understood her more. And you’re right: Joy was a control freak, LOL. Almost reminded me of Marge Simpson, since she too is a control freak that thinks everyone should think and feel the same way (at least in my opinion).

  • Eire , Direct link to comment

    The problem you mentioned in first paragraph is a part of a bit worrisome trend that I call “‘inflation of psychiatric terms”. People nowadays really seem to slap a medical diagnosis into every trait and treat it as a cool thing to talk about while treating those who need psychiatrist like lepers.

    Feel worried? Depression! Don’t like a mess? OCD? Switching moods? Bipolar! Witnessed a death of a cat? PTSD! Sometimes I have an impression that nowadays nobody have moods, just diagnosis.

    The “funny” thing is that this trend does no good for psychiatry and people struggling with mental health problems. It perpetuates harmful myths (like bipolar=mood switch), and bringing down all mental illnesses to something you can solve with positive thinking (and if you don’t- you are lazy attention whore).

    Psychiatry is a modern tuberculosis. Back in XIX century it was fashionable to look pale and alluring to your “weak lungs” gave you an instant attention from opposite sex. But once someone got real TB- good luck with dying alone.
    Sorry for a bit OT 🙂

  • SeriousRachel , Direct link to comment

    Great post! Thank you for making the distinction between sadness and depression. I did think the movie did a good job of getting across that all emotions are important. It’s unfortunate that often people will use “depression” as a short-hand for a story that takes “negative” emotions seriously. Kinda makes sense…as you noted, girls especially are taught to showcase their brighter side, and that’s one of the central conflicts of the film.

    Also, I wanted to take Sadness home with me. A puddle personified. *squee*

    Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful analysis.

  • Mila , Direct link to comment

    I think Inside Out does a good job showing that there is a difference between depression and normal, healthy sadness. Usually in case of depression, you have trouble pinpointing the exact reason why you are sad, and even if you know the reason, it is generally something that would appear trivial to mentally healthy people. Depression is not likely to go away on its own if left untreated. Riley, however, had a perfectly valid reason to be sad – she moved to a new and unknown place, far away from her friends. It is healthy for her to be affected, to let her memories be tinged in sadness, even to cry in class. And this sadness is something that would have gone away in time.

    However, in some cases perfectly normal sadness can evolve into depression, and the movie shows us exactly that. Riley would have healed in time if she had simply allowed her sadness to run its course. Instead, Joy takes over and doesn’t allow her to be sad. She pushes Riley to smile even when there is no reason to smile at all. It is this fake control that causes the whole mess and takes Joy and Sadness away from the headquarters. Now this – the complete absence of Joy and Sadness – is already outside the realm of healthy sadness. This is depression, and it is caused by Riley trying to repress and ignore her sadness instead of dealing with it. Only when she embraces her sadness, she goes on the road to healing. A great message for children.

  • Gwen , Direct link to comment

    Your point about the pressure to be happy, especially when you’re raised as a girl, is to me the point of the movie. Riley tries constantly to put on a brave face for her parents and cheer them up, and they pressure her quite a lot to continue being their happy little girl despite the fact she’s probably going through the toughest time of all of them. Joy seems to have taken on that obsession with constant happiness and it’s made clear that this is unfeasible and unhealthy. It’s not as explored as I would have liked but certainly the resolution comes when she’s finally showing sadness and crying, and find that her parents will allow that after all, and be there for her.

What do you think?

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