Depression. It’s more than just feeling/being sad. Sadness and unhappiness are a normal part of life and feelings that we all experience and deal with on a regular basis. Depression, however, is more complex. It is a pervasive feeling of negativity, a persistent bleakness and hopelessness in outlook, and an inability to experience joy in any aspect of life. Depressive episodes often last for weeks at a time and at their worst, can block all positive feelings from the individual suffering. People who suffer from depression often feel drained and lethargic, find it hard to communicate and interact with others, and often have difficulty maintaining relationship and their regular routine of work, exercise, etc. Depression affects people from all walks of life- even those who seem to “have it all” and are living “the good life”. Sometimes, people suffering from depression might not realize that’s what going on; other times they may not want to acknowledge it as depression- like many mental health concerns- often gets stigmatized and dismissed as ‘weakness’ or ‘madness’. Also, not everybody experiences depression the same way- it can be a one-time thing for some people and chronic/episodic for others. Lastly, there are many triggers and reasons for depression- usually some combination of a genetic predisposition plus environmental factors. As such, each person/episode is a unique case and must be dealt with accordingly; what works for one may not work for another. There is no magic bullet either; usually it takes a combination of things and some trial and error to figure out what helps.
In my case, even though I knew that depression ‘ran in my family’, I was so invested in being “strong” that when it hit me, I denied, denied, and denied some more. But after weeks- months of “nothing matters” as the daily refrain in my head, I could deny no more. So yea, I too suffer from depression. There’s a lot I’m still figuring out, but here are a few things that I learned that I would like to share; hopefully it helps you and yours in some way.
For the person experiencing depression:
1. Take it seriously. Denying or ignoring it will not make it go away. Depression is a real condition. Acknowledge it. Don’t worry about what other people might say. Know that it’s not your fault and you are not weak. Don’t compare yourself to others. Just focus on trying to do the best you can, one day at a time.
2. Ask for/accept help. Do not be ashamed or feel that you are being too self indulgent. Do not shut people out. You need people. You need the help. Depression can make it hard to connect with others, esp if you’re introverted to begin with. And even though most days you may not feel like leaving your bed/home, things aren’t going to magically get better. It’ll take work and you’re going to have to help yourself. Not that you have to do/know it all- outside assistance is there, you just have to reach out for it.
3. Reduce alcohol intake. Alcohol is a depressant, period, even though the initial consumption may foster feelings of euphoria and conviviality. Overindulgence of alcohol is problematic at the best of times; during a depressive episode it just makes everything worse. A little bit to “take the edge off” can easily slide into becoming a regular bad habit, obscuring the ability to think clearly, make healthy decisions, and affecting relationships with others. If you want to but cannot discipline yourself, you may need to involve others. Invite friends/loved ones to check in with you and help restrain you from going overboard. Tell neighborhood shopkeepers not to sell to you, or to give you water, juice, or a non-alcoholic beverage instead (yes, this means the business people must discipline themselves as well, ha.)
4. Address physical health issues. There is a real ‘mind-body’ connection and unaddressed physical health issues could trigger changes in brain chemistry leading to depression. Even if one doesn’t feel sick physically, it’s still worthwhile to get a general checkup when a depressive episode hits, to rule out any underlying biological problems.
5. Address emotional needs. Too often, people do not deal with the things that are bothering them mentally/emotionally. It can be hard to do this as it might involve confronting others, challenging relationships of intimacy, power, etc. However, this work needs to be done; left ignored it festers and just creates bigger problems. Purging negative emotions through journaling or some other medium- song, dance, art, as well as simply talking things through with a neutral third party is often therapeutic.
6. Address environmental factors. There may be things in the school, work, or living space negatively affecting your mental health and contributing to depression. Too much noise, not enough quality sleep, overwork, or experiencing racism, discrimination, bullying, as well as worrying about finances, the sociopolitical climate, family pressure etc- can all contribute to depression. While most of these are ‘normal’ issues to deal with in life, they can combine to over-stress someone with a predisposition to depression, triggering a depressive episode. While it may not b possible to resolve all environmental issues, recognizing their impact and changing those which can be changed can help profoundly with easing depression and improving mental health.
7. Exercise. Even if it’s just a little bit a daily, it helps. Push yourself to do it. It doesn’t have to mean going to a gym or anything fancy- just walking is ok. Walk the seawall, the Gardens, the National Park. Get off the bus at a further stop and walk a couple more blocks home. Or run, bike, swim, dance- work up a sweat anyway you can.
8. Find at least one or two things to do daily that bring you joy. For me it’s planting things and minding animals. Watching seeds burst out and push their way up through the dirt makes me feel like I can do something similar too, and reminds/keeps me connected to the larger forces at work around us. Animals are a source of uncomplicated, unconditional love. Plants and animals also need to be fed and watered on a daily basis; often times, we who suffer from depression need help/a reason to get out of bed in the morning. A hungry cat biting your toes is good motivation 🙂
9. Eat properly. It’s not always easy to do this, even when one is not depressed. But the impact of a healthy diet on our mental and well as physical health cannot be overstated. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of water, less sugar and fried things will keep you physically well so you can focus on getting mentally fit. Also, sometimes, preparing yourself a delicious, healthy meal can help keep you grounded, remind you to love yourself, and of the good things in life.
10. Know that it might come back/recur. Plan/prepare so you can be better able to deal with it if/when it does. Pay attention and make notes of what possible triggers might have been, as well as worked or didn’t this time (realizing that they may or may not be the same next time around..).
Some tips for dealing with a friend or loved one suffering from depression:
- Don’t be fooled. There is a lot of stigma around mental health issues and a great deal of pressure on people to “be strong”. Depression and other mental health issues can be viewed as “weakness” and people affected by these illnesses may feel ashamed and not willing to admit that they are suffering and in need of help. Many still paste smiles on their faces and brush off concerns. Don’t be fooled. Depression is a valid and serious mental health issue, not just a minor mood imbalance.
- Mind their business. If you suspect a friend/family member is suffering from depression, don’t be afraid to get involved. Keep asking after them and be persistent, even if they brush you off. If you notice changes in their behavior or personality that concern you- that seem to suggest they are more stressed than ordinary, aren’t coping well, and lack their usual interest in and zest for life- don’t just ignore them. Mind their business. Ask questions and talk about what’s going on. While depressed people tend to ‘hole up’ and avoid others, it is crucial that they not be left alone in their pit of darkness. You could be the lifeline bringing them back up.
- Keep expressing your love. It’s not easy dealing with people suffering from depression. Depression often envelops those affected in a spiral of negativity, affecting their ability to engage positively with others. If you love and care about them though, please let them know- in as tangible a way as possible. Helping with basic things like making sure they have food and water, as well as assisting with daily errands are concrete ways to show your love. Often, knowing that there are people who care about them is what keeps depressed people from hurting themselves. However, don’t expect them to necessarily give love back to you at the same time you’re expressing it. Remember that depressed people are usually enveloped in a fog of negativity which affects their ability to relate to others. Love is powerful medicine though; keep expressing it in tangible ways.
- Don’t tell/expect them to “just snap out of it”. Depression is not just a ‘bad mood’. Depressive episodes often last for weeks at a time and at their worst, can block all positive feelings from the individual suffering. People suffering from depression usually feel very drained of energy, find it hard to communicate and interact with others, and often have difficulty maintaining their regular routine of work, exercise, etc. It takes a great deal of effort to overcome a depressive episode; medication, counseling, and environmental or lifestyle changes may all be necessary. This takes time and effort. Your understanding and support is crucial. Much as you might wish your friend/loved one would just “snap out of” their depression, know that’s just not that easy.
- Take care of yourself. It’s not easy to be around someone suffering from depression, even if you love and care about them. They often cannot return your love; even if they do feel it, they often cannot communicate that to you effectively. So, take care of yourself. Make sure you have/get support as you try to support them. Don’t try to do or be everything to your depressed friend or loved one; involve others. Exercise patience and take care of your needs as well.