Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/10/2022
Depending on your age, your parents, and where you grew up, you may have been accused of laziness from an early age, while in fact, you were struggling with neurodivergence or mental health issues. Today, though, as an adult, many people still hear that voice when their to-do list never seems to get shorter: am I depressed or lazy?
The relationship between what we know as “laziness” and mental health is complicated, but what we can tell you is that if you’re worrying that you have a horrible character flaw, you can most likely put that fear to rest. If you’re worried about it, you’re probably not lazy.
So what are you, then? How does mental health affect your productivity and your reliability? How is depression related to how “hard-working” you appear to others and to yourself?
If you’re trying to understand your place on the laziness-depression spectrum, we can help you sort out that part of your identity. Let’s start with some basics about these two terms, and what’s really behind each of them.
We know — you can hear a frustrated parent, teacher or boss in your ear right now saying otherwise, but consider some facts.
Most people understand laziness as a reluctance to do things, accomplish goals and exert effort. But typically, we see that in other people — people who aren’t doing what’s expected of them, or what we expect of them.
On the flip side, when we do see laziness in ourselves, we’re usually describing a lack of productivity or disinterest in the work and obligations in front of us.
But what causes laziness? Why are we lazy? Is it because we’re bad people? Unlikely — that’s societal stigma talking to you. Is it a mental illness? Well, maybe.
Laziness is popularly considered a character flaw, but like sneezing or going to sleep, it might be a sort of involuntary response.
Some experts consider it a form of self-care: we give ourselves space to do nothing because, frankly, it’s exhausting to do something all the time.
There are more pragmatic ways to understand laziness, though.
It could be a concern about the pain felt from movement due to medical conditions. Laziness has been linked to being overwhelmed with tasks, addictions to things like social media and controlled substances and more subtle unconscious things like problems with “value linking.”
Value linking is essentially the act of understanding what value a task, chore or action provides, and when we don’t understand the value, it can be difficult to complete the tasks (we’re looking at you, TPS reports).
Another word for laziness, however, is “unmotivated,” and this can happen for more serious reasons, like as a symptom of depression.
Depression is a mood disorder in which you experience a lack of hope, enthusiasm and/or joy, and are often plagued with feelings of hopelessness, sorrow and emptiness. And all of those things can lead to signs of depression that actually look an awful lot like laziness.
Let’s say that you have clinical depression — how might it affect your life?
You might stop working on your hobbies, playing sports or trying in the office or classroom as a result of depression, because you lose interest in those activities or lack the motivation to put in the effort.
Others might see it as lazy, but it’s just a result of your depressive disorder.
Depression can cause changes to your sleep patterns, and as a result, you might stay in bed all day or take naps. You might feel fatigued and not want to do much other than sit around.
“Laziness” as we understand it may not always be a result of depression, of course, but even when it isn’t related to a mood disorder like depression, it’s typically a result of a lack of motivation — either because the “lazy” person doesn’t feel they’re in control of a situation, or because they lack the self-awareness to find motivation for themselves.
Either you don’t know what drives you, essentially, or you feel trapped in meaningless toil.
Do either of those things describe you? Are you aware of the problem but unwilling to take steps to fix it? If so, you may qualify as lazy.
But even if you meet those criteria, you may be behaving that way as a result of a more complicated mental health issue or due to a different depressive symptom like anger or irritability.
Other conditions like ADHD, addiction and substance abuse might also cause you to behave in a manner that is traditionally misunderstood as laziness.
Depression, meanwhile, is so similar to laziness that we might very well do away with the word lazy the way we’ve done away with other insulting, dated words that disparage someone’s mental capacity.
If you feel lazy or if you’ve been accused of laziness, the honest truth is that you’re better served seeing a mental health professional to discuss the issue rather than reading some old self-help book by a Founding Father about the virtues of daily toil.
Let’s say you do have depression or another mental health condition or mood disorder that causes a lack of motivation, fatigue and disinterest in doing something with your life.
How do you address it? There are three answers to this question, and a fourth “all of the above” option may be the smartest choice you can make.
Depression treatment is broken into three categories: therapy, medication and lifestyle changes. And chances are that you can benefit from all three.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, for instance, help manage the levels of serotonin in your brain, which is believed to help prevent those extreme lows associated with depression.
Therapy, meanwhile, can come in a lot of forms. Psychotherapy — and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in particular — are effective means of treatment for depression.
CBT is a system that teaches depressed people to learn to see negative thoughts and emotions and practice control over them in the moment. That can disrupt the pattern of depressive episodes and help you overcome the condition.
Finally, there are a variety of physical, chemical and biological issues that may be associated with depression, and making important changes to your diet and exercise routines, making sure you’re not vitamin deficient and generally taking care of your health can all potentially reduce your risk and symptoms of depression in some cases.
If you’re being called lazy a lot (or calling yourself lazy a lot), it may be time to talk to someone about it. You may just believe that you can bootstrap yourself out of it, but that’s not really how things work.
Sometimes, we get overwhelmed, we struggle or we suffer — and we need help. Our bodies respond to depression with a lot of symptoms, but there’s only one way to deal with depression: asking for help.
If you’re ready to get the help you need, contact a health care professional today. We can help if you’re not sure where to start. Between our additional research materials on depression treatments, the types of depression, and therapy for depression, there’s a lot we can help you understand about what you’re experiencing.
And if you’re ready for help now, we offer online therapy so that you can get help from where you are.