Depressed? Experts say these "embarrassing," "time-wasting" activities can make you feel better

There is a stigma attached to watching TV, using social media and playing video games — but they can save your life

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 18, 2023 4:04PM (EDT)

Depressed woman in bed with hand on forehead (Getty/ Martin Dimitrov)
Depressed woman in bed with hand on forehead (Getty/ Martin Dimitrov)

When Dr. Heidi Kar was a psychologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs, one of her patients was a veteran who refused to give up his gun — despite being so depressed that he had repeatedly tried to take his own life.

Today, Dr. Kar is the Principal Advisor for Mental Health, Trauma and Violence at Education Development Center (EDC). But at the time, she was just a doctor trying to save a suicidal patient's life. As a compromise, Dr. Kar suggested that the patient put his gun in a bucket of water and stick it in the freezer, so that at least he couldn't easily get to it. As Dr. Kar anticipated, the patient was unable to access the gun the next time he wanted to kill himself. Frustrated at the delay, Dr. Kar's patient began frantically chipping at the ice in the hope that he could quickly extract his weapon.

"We often put pressure on ourselves and others to constantly produce to a great detriment."

"His wife came home to find him chopping the ice, trying to get to his gun," Dr. Kar told Salon by email. "When he looked up and saw her, and realized how long it was going to take him, he burst into laughter with her – in other words, the humor of the moment distracted him from his emotional pain." He hadn't stopped hurting, but two crucial variables — delay from being able to kill himself, and a disruption of his suicidal thought patterns — entered his life at exactly the right moment. 

"The delayed access of the weapon allowed that extreme emotionality to subside and allowed him to latch onto alternate thoughts about the humor in the situation," Dr. Kar explained. "The humor became a life-saving distraction."

Of course, there are much less extreme ways that we can break out depressive thought patterns. Ashley Kolaya is the lead of the Mental Health Storytelling Initiative, which advocates for a positive national narrative about mental health within the entertainment sector and mental health fields. Kolaya's organization believes strongly in the importance of quality storytelling, and Kolaya recalled a work of fiction that has helped her during her darkest hours.

"The movie 'Wild' starring Reese Witherspoon and based on the book by Cheryl Strayed is an example of a film I saw after losing my mother that helped validate my experience," Kolaya told Salon. "It's an honest depiction of the complicated nature of mother/daughter relationships, especially when a substance use disorder is at play."

The case for being unproductive

"People are inherently motivated to be productive, and 'downtime' plays an important role in thought and experience consolidation so we can continue to learn and grow."

The link between the stories shared by Kar and Kolaya is that both involve distraction and escape as a mental health tool. Traditionally there is a stigma around spending one's time doing "non-productive" things like watching movies or TV shows, relaxing to music, playing video games, LARPing and other kinds of entertainment. It is similarly regarded as "weird" or "inappropriate" to engage in activities like laughing at a dark subject such as suicide; Kar's patient and his wife were able to do that because both recognized they were in an absurd situation (thawing a gun) in the first place. Both anecdotes reinforce the same point — that taking one's mind off of a depressed subject through distraction, though not a permanent solution, is nevertheless a powerful temporary one.

"People relax and let go of tensions and distress in many ways, most typically with distractions," Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, Senior Vice President of Research at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Salon by email. "The idea that we must always be productive is not only unrealistic, but it would also not give us time to process thoughts and feelings by distracting ourselves. We often put pressure on ourselves and others to constantly produce to a great detriment. People are inherently motivated to be productive, and 'downtime' plays an important role in thought and experience consolidation so we can continue to learn and grow."

Depression is a disease, and like many diseases it causes immense pain to its sufferers. "When someone is depressed, they often feel heavy, like they can't move, and have poor concentration," Dr. Harkavy-Friedman explained. "Taking a shower and getting dressed can feel like a huge accomplishment. This is difficult for people who have not had depression to understand." When a person with depression distracts themselves, it serves as a form of pain relief, "alleviating heaviness, worries, depressing thoughts and rumination."

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As such, distractions are great salves for those who are depressed — things like "watching movies and TV, playing video games, doing puzzles, coloring, exercising, doing art activities, fishing or going for a walk," Harkavy-Friedman says. But it's equally important for those who are depressed to have people in their lives — individuals whose main effect on the depressed person is to alleviate their pain. Indeed, quite often, using entertainment to escape and using socialization to escape became one and the same thing.

"Community connection is one of the most powerful antidotes to depression."

"Research shows that community connection is one of the most powerful antidotes to depression and suicidality," explains Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, Chief Medical Officer for The Jed Foundation (JED), a non-profit that helps young people and teenagers dealing with suicidal tendencies and depression, in an email to Salon. "Social media and gaming can offer spaces for those who are struggling to find community and connect with others."

She added, "Young people who tend to be more cut off can find real benefit in online interactions." These include people of color, LGBTQIA+ young people who "use digital spaces to learn about their identities, find role models, and access educational resources for themselves and their families" and other young people who are struggling with mental health issues. So-called "time-wasting" activities like spending all of your free time listening to music or joining fan communities can literally save lives.

"There is evidence that music therapy has benefits for depression, and many people find that particular kinds of music can be helpful for their mood when dealing with difficult emotions," Erickson-Schroth told Salon. Similarly "being part of a fandom, such as K-pop or manga, can open up new worlds, including social connections centered around a common interest."

Experts caution that certain time-wasting activities can sometimes be detrimental. A prime example is social media, which can actually make people feel worse about themselves in certain cases, studies have found. 

"From the psychological perspective, we see unhealthy activities or behaviors as those which lead to negative consequences," Kar told Salon. "The key here is that behaviors can affect people differently, depending on the consequences and resulting thought patterns." 

Kar pointed out that some people spend so much time on social media that they lose connections with human beings who could be positive influences in their day-to-day lives. "But others who spend the same amount of time on social media may experience benefits, like feelings of closeness with friends, and may have positive, healthy thoughts of connectedness to others."

"The bottom line is that consequences and/or thoughts elicited from activities we spend time doing are key in understanding whether those activities are positive for us," Kar added. She recommended distractions such as enjoyable physical exercise (for example, playing games) and relying on resources like the "gold standard" Stanley Brown Suicide Safety Plan. Notably, the third step in this plan is phrased "distraction" precisely because it is open-ended enough to allow each person to tailor the distraction to their specific needs. Kar recommended a website by Dr. Ursula Whiteside that also relies on the latest research on effective distractions.

And for those who do not want to stop being sedentary or talk to other people, they should never underestimate the power of a good story. That is what motivates Kolaya as the Lead Impact and Engagement Officer for the Mental Health Storytelling Coalition.

"Primarily we focus right now on film and television," Kolaya explained, adding that "we're also working in music, podcasting individual storytellers such as [YouTube celebrities]." They have made efforts to include positive mental health messaging in programs like Wolf Pack, which used the guide to accurately depict the anxiety attacks suffered by the main character (Armani Jackson). 

I have my own story of a distraction that saved my life. It was not a work of art that I admired, but one I detested: The 2021 movie "Music," written and directed by pop star Sia. At the time in my life when I watched that film, I was dealing with a tremendous amount of emotional pain due to a Xanax addiction and the recent death of my dissertation adviser. Yet from the opening frames, I was so aghast at the horribly offensive depictions of autism (I am autistic) that I channeled all of that negative energy into trying to write a funny-angry negative review of a film that richly deserved one. The lingering thought to take so much Xanax with alcohol that I might stop breathing was, temporarily, allayed. And that was enough.

Suicide is currently the 12th leading form of death in the United States, with 45,979 confirmed deaths by suicide in 2020 alone. If you or someone you love is in danger, please utilize these resources and know that you are not alone.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Depression Psychology Reporting Suicide Television Video Games