Two things happened today that made me want to pound my head against a wall, Charlie Brown-style. The first was that I got an email from a woman who said that she is suffering from severe depression, but that friends and family want her to try to “talk herself out of it”, and not get involved with medication and therapy. Now, it is not unusual for me to get an email from someone who either (1) feels they should be able to handle their own depression without treatment (2) feels that someone close to them should be able to handle their depression on their own, or (3) is being talked out of seeking treatment by family or friends. These emails never fail to raise my blood pressure a few notches.
The stress from this communication was doubled when the second thing happened, which is that I went to the Psychology/Self-help section at my local bookstore. It seems to be the largest section in the store. As I looked for legitimate books on depression and its treatment, I couldn’t help but see all the “help yourself” titles in that section, as well as what I call the “Thank God I’m here to tell you what to do, you pathetic loser” books. Dr. Laura Schlessinger was telling me that I do 10 stupid things to mess up my life (only 10, Dr. Laura?), John Roger and Peter McWilliams were telling me that I couldn’t afford the luxury of a negative thought (gee, and I was having so much fun spoiling myself with those negative thoughts), countless others were telling me that if I just bought their book and put some effort into it, I could be happier, sexier, smarter, successful and more fulfilled. When it came to depression, there was no shortage of advice. Apparently I can embrace depression, use it as a tool for self-discovery, and run it off (at the same time I’m running off those belgian waffles, I guess – how handy). By this time I was way past pounding my head against a wall, and into the Yosemite Sam stage, in which I want to jump up and down and swear uncontrollably.
Let me pause for a moment to explain exactly what I mean when I talk about depression. I’m not referring to the normal down periods that everyone goes through once in a while, that can be brought on by a rainy day, a broken heart, the flu or even for no particular reason. We mope around, listen to sad music and feel sorry for ourselves. These moods go away within a couple of days, and we can enjoy life again. Clinical depression is much more than that, and is comparable to a down mood as much as a sneeze is comparable to pneumonia. It is an illness that affects a person in many different ways. It can affect appetite, sleep patterns, powers of concentration, and even slow down movement and speech. While the predominant feeling depression brings is often sadness or a blue mood, it can also be a numb, empty feeling, anxiety, hopelessness, loss of self-esteem or self-worth, inability to make decisions or a combination of these. Unlike a passing mood, clinical depression dominates a person’s life and brings it to a screeching halt.
Back in the bookstore, I was relieved to see that there are also many books that address depression in a responsible manner, explaining that it is an illness and encouraging the sufferer to seek treatment from a physician. It seems, however, that too often the influence of these books and other educational material about depression is drowned out by the belief that depression is simply a down mood or negative attitude that any self-respecting person should be able to overcome. I read recently of a study in which 75% of adults said that someone with depression could get better just by being more positive. Can you imagine the same 75% saying that someone who is paralyzed just needs to work out more, or that someone who is mentally challenged just needs to think “power thoughts”?
This attitude is dangerous for a couple of reasons. First, the number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. Why don’t people get treatment for depression? Probably because they are being told by society, well-meaning family and friends and their own misconceptions of mental illness that depression is just a mood that they should be able to control. They believe that a life-threatening illness can be managed by happy talk and an upbeat demeanor. I know what I’m talking about. I tried for years to defeat my (undiagnosed) depression by thinking of reasons I was lucky and telling myself that that cold empty feeling had no cause and therefore didn’t have any validity. It’s like trying to treat diabetes by skipping dessert. It doesn’t work, and it’s dangerous to your health.
The second reason this “talk yourself out of it” attitude is dangerous is that depression can be caused by an undiagnosed illness such as heart disease, thyroid dysfunction, cancer, infectious diseases and immune/autoimmune disorders. Depression can even be brought on by vitamin or mineral deficiencies or prescription and over-the-counter drugs. If you don’t treat depression as an illness and get yourself checked out by a physician or psychiatrist, you run the risk of leaving a serious illness undiagnosed.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of depression, make an appointment to see a doctor. If you know someone who seems to be showing the symptoms, encourage him or her to see a doctor. Don’t believe the myth that we can “handle” depression on our own.