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Dismantling the ‘Laziness Lie’ About Depression

Let’s Talk About It

March 25, 2024

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Photography by Holly Clark/Stocksy United

Photography by Holly Clark/Stocksy United

by Maya Capasso

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW

•••••

by Maya Capasso

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW

•••••

Having my mental health condition dismissed as laziness has been one of the more frustrating parts of my journey. Understanding where this stigma comes from is the first step in debunking it.

Some of the most painful aspects of living with your mental health aren’t the symptoms of the condition itself but the impact of societal stigma.

I’ve been depressed for most of my life. For me, the worst part of the condition isn’t the exhaustion, hopelessness, lack of motivation, or even the suicidal ideation. The worst part about having depression is the world’s dismissal of my struggles as “lazy.”

I constantly feel like I’m not working hard enough or making enough money because of our society’s obsession with individualism and productivity. Popular movies, books, and TV series contain this harmful message as they portray success as equating to financial success and working endless hours.

There’s a sinister reason for those in power to instill a fear of laziness in those they wish to control. The word “lazy” became a popular idea in the 17th century and spread to shame enslaved people into working hard despite facing terrible abuse and never earning a dime for their tireless work.

Since then, the oppressed continue to get stamped as “lazy” when they resist capitalist ideals that aim to put more money in the pockets of the ruling class.

Understanding the historical context of “laziness” and its coercive purpose in our socioeconomic system helped me realize the truth: I’m not lazy; I’m living with depression.

Here’s some background to the term and some ways to help you overcome the laziness myth in your own life.

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The ‘laziness lie’

Before we delve into the history of the word “lazy,” let’s start by defining what it means. To most of us, being “lazy” means lacking drive, motivation, or willingness to act. But there’s more to it.

Laziness has a negative connotation — you not only lack the drive to get something done, but it’s also your fault. It’s connected to our morality. If you’re lazy, you’re not working hard enough. You don’t deserve support.

However, according to social psychologist Dr. Devon Price, laziness doesn’t exist. In fact, they even wrote an entire book called “Laziness Does Not Exist” to explain the cultural context of the word “lazy” and how its use harms the oppressed.

Price coined the term “Laziness Lie” to break down the myth.

“The ‘Laziness Lie’ tells us that our worth as human beings is linked to our productivity, that our needs and limitations cannot be trusted and must instead be ignored,” they write in an article on their Substack.

However, if you think about it, laziness is more of an idea than a fact observed in human behavior.

No one wants to disappoint people. Everyone I know who lives with depression feels terrible that they lack motivation and feel exhausted all day, spending hours ruminating and desperately wishing they could “be normal” and “do better.”

So why does the “Laziness Lie” permeate throughout our cultural commentary? Because that’s just how those in power want it.

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Racist, classist, and ableist roots of the word ‘lazy’

“The idea that lazy people are evil fakers who deserve to suffer has been embedded in the word since the very start,” argues Price in an article explaining the historical context of the word “lazy.”

Price explains that the concept of laziness first gained widespread popularity during colonial America as a tool to convince enslaved people to work.

The white landowners weren’t going to entice the enslaved people into their workforce with financial payment. Instead, they spread Puritan ideals that transformed into a form of Christianity obsessed with productivity — the harder you work, the bigger the chance that you go to heaven.

If enslaved people resisted, they were not only physically punished but also slandered by being called lazy.

After the United States outlawed slavery during the Civil War, the “Laziness Lie” didn’t leave. Instead, it morphed to accommodate the shifting political landscape.

Those at the head of the means of production continued to spread the myth to pit working-class white people against their black neighbors, convince voters to prioritize individuality and hard work over community care and relaxation, and ultimately maintain an overworked, underpaid workforce.

People living with depression and other mental health conditions that lead to a lack of energy or motivation threaten those who hold economic power.

According to the World Health Organization, “Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety at a cost of US $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.”

Corporations know people who have difficulties with mental health conditions tend to work less than those who don’t. The “Laziness Lie” is a tool those in power use to stigmatize people who struggle with their mental health to force us to be as productive as possible.

If the public votes for policies to shift in favor of providing disability benefits to those with mental health conditions, CEOs lose a significant percentage of their workforce.

The idea of laziness didn’t come out of nowhere — it’s a weapon used to destroy community support structures and keep money flowing into the pockets of the rich.

Reminding yourself that you’re not lazy

Living with depression, we don’t avoid work, stay in bed all day, or neglect to brush our teeth because we’re evil or purposely trying to get away with something. Those things are out of our control. They’re symptoms of our condition.

For me, when I’m in a particularly deep depressive hole, I struggle with energy and motivation because my brain constantly tells me, “trying is hopeless,” “nothing matters,” and “the world is burning, so why bother?”

Those painful thoughts completely sap my energy and leave me struggling to accomplish the simplest tasks.

At the same time, I feel horrible that I’m not working hard enough, that I’m a burden on my family, or that if I just tried harder, I could get things done.

These thoughts are the result of my internalization of the stigma around depression. The “Laziness Lie” makes me feel like it’s shameful to reach out for help and that something’s wrong with me that can’t be fixed.

But within those harmful thoughts is the solution to overcoming the laziness myth in our lives.

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How to combat the laziness myth

The stigma perpetuated by the “Laziness Lie” harms people living with depression every day. But if we flip the stigma on its head, we can combat the myth and remind ourselves that we’re not lazy; we’re living with depression and doing our absolute best with what we have.

If the “Laziness Lie” tells me to hide away from help and feel like a terrible person, the key to debunking the myth is to acknowledge what it truly is: a lie.

That means we need to act in opposition to what the lie tells us to do. Instead of blaming and isolating ourselves, we can reach out to our loved ones for support.

Instead of pushing hard at work without taking mental health breaks, we can stand up for ourselves and ask for accommodations.

Instead of accepting what society tells us about laziness, we can think critically and look at the historical context of the term and how it’s been used for centuries.

By flipping the script, we can slowly take our power back and help fight the stigma for others simultaneously.

The bottom line

Living with depression is hard enough, but the added stigma of being called “lazy” only makes it harder to cope.

Understanding the historical context of the word “lazy” and its connection to racism, classism, and ableism can help people with depression take their power back.

We’re not lazy; we’re depressed and trying our best.

Medically reviewed on March 25, 2024

3 Sources

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About the author

Maya Capasso

Maya Capasso (she/they) is a writer, entertainment journalist, and mental health advocate who hopes to raise awareness and help others feel less alone with their writing. She believes being open about her life-long struggle with depression works to break stigmas around mental health conditions and validates others with similar experiences. When they’re not writing, Maya’s typically binging TV shows, creating pottery at their local studio, or playing with her pup, Turnip. You can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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