New research comparing depression and prejudice might hold a key to reducing both!
The human brain is wired to treat ‘our people’ differently that ‘those people.’ That is why it is shockingly easy to create hurtful stereotypes about ‘them,’ be they another ethnic group, another social group, or just people who don’t like that painting over there. Our brains quickly jump to negative conclusions about people who, for whatever reason, don’t seem like us.
Prejudice may be natural and easy to cultivate, but it is not healthy. And most bullies point out something about their victim that makes them inferior. “You’re stupid, you’re ugly, you’re fat, you’re a no-good _____ (add racial slur here), no one likes you, I hate you.” Victims, especially if they cannot disagree with their bully (either to themselves or out loud), are at risk of depression and stigma.
Bullies in schools and neighbourhoods (not online) are typically socially dominant people who aren’t, themselves, bullied. Online, it’s a different story. Most cyber-bullies are actually victims of bullying themselves, either in the “real world” or the virtual, online world. The victim becomes the oppressor. The internal depression becomes a new target’s depression.
Oppressors (people who act with prejudiced or negative stereotypes) are also at risk of depression, if they suddenly find themselves a member of ‘that group’ they despise or belittle. Healthy people who develop a chronic illness may feel depressed because they think sick people are feeble and damaged. A popular child who thinks that ‘loners’ are ‘losers’ may be devastated when, suddenly, their social group disowns them. A teenager who suddenly realizes they are gay or lesbian may despise themselves for being a ‘[homosexual].’ A worker despairs when they lose their job because now they are ‘one of those lazy, stupid unemployed welfare cheats.’ Sure, ‘those people are somehow defective’ sounds pretty bland and maybe even somehow satisfying until YOU are all of a sudden ‘one of them.’
Being a bully whose tables have suddenly turned is another pathway to depression.
Someone who is depressed may be saying the same things, but about themselves. They are both the source and the target of their own prejudice. “I hate you. You are a loser. You’re unloveable.” Like most oppressors, they feel guilty about hating someone. But like most victims, they lack faith in themselves and feel worthless.
We all have prejudiced thoughts – it’s how we’re wired. Trying to pretend we don’t or somehow suppress them doesn’t work. Learning to dispute them and test all-or-nothing statements do. It prevents kids from developing harmful stereotypes. It shows adults that harmful stereotypes are inaccurate. This has two wonderful effects:
1. If ‘all those people’ are just like ‘most people’ (with strengths and foibles), there’s no basis for prejudice –> no ammunition for bullying or discrimination. Exposure to other groups also helps, because people realize that ‘those people’ really aren’t all the same and have positive qualities. Clint Eastwood’s movie Gran Torino demonstrates this beautifully. He is a hardened war veteran who spits out racial slurs like rapid fire from a rifle. But, when he gets to know his Asian neighbour, he realizes they aren’t ‘just a bunch of [you-know-whats].’
2. If people don’t hold harmful stereotypes about various groups, when they find themselves a part of that group (e.g., elderly, obese, gay, lesbian, divorced, ill), they are less likely to get depressed. They won’t be their own source of put-downs, so they can’t be their own target, either.
Is the solution to bullying to tell people “stop that?” It certainly sends a message that it won’t be tolerated. But it is likely about as helpful as telling a depressed person to “cheer up.” It doesn’t really address the problem; it just labels it. Setting a good example and equipping parents and kids to rise above their prejudices stand a better chance.