About 16% of NZers have a diagnosed mental illness, the chief of which are anxiety and depression. Another 10% will be diagnosed over the course of their lifetime. That constitutes over 1/4 of the population. And that’s just the officially diagnosed.
Robin Williams. Beyoncé. Abraham Lincoln. JK Rowling. Johnny Depp. Oprah Winfrey. Harrison Ford. Princess Diana.
Actors, Stars, Leaders, Authors, Personalities, Celebrities, Royalty. And ordinary people like you and I. More people struggle with it than we realise.
The truth is we all come into contact with depression at some stage in our lives, for some of us earlier than we’d want to. Perhaps we know someone who has it. Maybe we’ve even experienced it ourselves. Or perhaps we’ll regularly be in contact with someone who has it but be completely unaware of their suffering.
You see, the person with depression isn’t necessarily the sad looking person in the corner of the room, nor the person you recently saw looking glum. They are often extremely good at hiding it. It’s easier to suffer in silence than exposing it for all to see. It could be the guy who loves playing practical jokes and who is the life and soul of the party. Or it could be the successful businesswoman who seems to have the perfect life. What we don’t realise is that they go home and crash, exhausted from putting up the pretence that all is right in their world.
Proper clinical depression is more than just feeling sad. One must have the following symptoms every day, or nearly every day for at least 2 consecutive weeks, to be officially diagnosed:
At least 5 of the following 9, with at least 1 of the first 2:
- Depressed mood most of the day
- Decreased interest in or pleasure in things in almost all activities
- Weight gain or loss (when not dieting)
- Inability to sleep or oversleeping
- Psychomotor agitation or retardation
- Fatigue or chronically low energy levels
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive/inappropriate guilt
- Inability to think, concentrate or make decisions
- Recurrent thoughts of death, suicide
If this is you, or has been you, it’s usually been going on for some time, and it takes time to get out of it. Helpful things for mild-moderate depression you can do or recommend to others include:
- Good sleep routine
- Healthy nutritious diet
- Stress management
- Learn to be more grateful and generous
- Talk to family/friends about it
- Brief psychological intervention
- Figure out what the triggers are and develop strategies to avoid those
- Develop hope and a plan
If you’re suffering from severe depression, you might also want to consider a combination of the following:
- Anti-depressant medication. This kick starts the body’s own ability to re-uptake the body’s natural mood elevation chemicals such as norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin.
- Talking therapies with physicians. Well known ones include Cognitive Behavioural therapy, Interpersonal therapy, Acceptance therapy.
- Electroconvulsive therapy/shock treatment as a last resort. Contrary to what the name suggests, this is actually very safe, humane and effective.
Most of us however are not the ones with depression. More often we’re the ones looking on, unable to relate to the person suffering. It’s easy for us to avoid them, judge those with it, and fail to show compassion. Unhelpful comments such as, ‘just get over it’, ‘you just need to be more positive’, ‘well at least you’re building character’, ‘stop feeling so sorry for yourself!’, do much more to harm than to help. We tend to marginalise those suffering, we don’t quite know how to respond, so we end up either avoiding them or not responding at all, and the person suffering is deprived of a friend to help them out just at the time they needed them most.
We need to stop thinking of mental illnesses as some kind of weakness people just need to get over, and start treating them as seriously as a physical illness. When someone has a physical illness we’re usually much better at recognising there’s a need and offering our support and compassion, than for those people with mental illnesses.
So what can we do for those people suffering?
The 12 Do’s & Don’ts of Depression:
- Be there for them even if they reject you
- Give them social contact
- Offer physical help – cooking, cleaning, gardening or something similar
- Acknowledge their depression, talk to them about it, ask questions
- Listen, and listen some more
- Remind people to sleep, eat healthy, exercise and remember their hope and plan
- Don’t judge
- Don’t be a stranger
- Don’t try to give them a one-fix-all solution
- Don’t make unhelpful or heartless comments
- Don’t avoid the topic and pretend everything is ok
- Don’t blow it out of proportion or minimise it
It’s hard work, spending time with people with depression and other mental illnesses. Sometimes we feel drained after spending time with them. Sometimes we feel undervalued when they don’t seem to appreciate the work we do for them. Sometimes we can’t see the end in sight when they won’t need our continued support. But the time WILL come when the suffering will be over and all the tears are wiped away. Reminding both yourself and them of this will help ease the time ahead as you continue to work towards a mind at peace.