In light of the increasing amounts and consistent news stories of people losing their battles to mental illness, it is important to discuss factors that can contribute to depression, what the symptoms are, and how people who do not suffer can respond without causing harm.
*I want to address the fact that I do not suffer depression. I am not a therapist. I do have friends who do suffer. I have taken the input of my friends as well as others to add to this piece so that it has a solid representation of what they go through and what is/is not helpful to them. This piece is meant to help non-sufferers have insight. I welcome any addendum and comments from those who want their perspectives heard.*
Depression is a highly individualized illness. It is not an illness in the “traditional” sense. It doesn’t have clear and readable signs. There are no visible symptoms we would associate with an illness…for instance, a person with a pox, cold, wound, skin disease and the like. The people who suffer depression do not have visible sores.
Depression does not have a cough, fever, flu symptoms and is not so easily treated with a cold med to stop your runny nose. Since it is not visible to those who do not suffer it, it does not seem like it is a “real” disease. This is a harmful way of thinking. Depression is a daily battle with your brain to function and carry on with life.
The brain is the least understood organ of the body. It is the control center of everything we do, say, think, and feel. It processes our environment to help us make decisions. It let’s us know when we are in danger, hungry, hot, cold, tired, confident, sad, and happy…
What happens when your control center is not performing at its highest capability? Wired to make you feel and think you are in a constant state of peril? What happens when your control center that regulates your body temperature and functions causes you to feel exhausted and cold? Or can not formulate the words you want to say as it is not functioning today?
People who suffer depression can feel pain throughout their body. The very act of getting out of bed can induce pain. They feel cold. They may not eat due to a lack of appetite which is counterproductive to gaining energy when they already feel exhausted by late morning. They may over eat trying to compensate for the lack of sleep the previous night. Insomnia afflicts many as busy brain takes over reminding them of things they couldn’t accomplish that day. Feelings of dread and hopelessness become the thoughts of the day.
Couple all of these things with the rationality of knowing your brain and body are not being rational. It’s crippling.
What do you do when you suffer?
You question everything. You fight the irrational sense of fear and sadness that cripples you. You don’t know what/who to trust. You know your brain is being irrational but you can not switch it off. You lack the ability to form words in sentences to express your feelings and thoughts effectively. Your brain may feel like it is working in the wrong way and moving in the wrong direction
You fear you may hurt friendships by cancelling plans because you are struggling. You worry you are a burden on friends and loved ones when you reach out to talk. You think, “They must be going through their own hell, I don’t want to add to it.”
You feel sick, but you know you are not sick in the traditional sense. Your body hurts but you have to go to work. You have to pretend you are well in order to get that paycheck.
You can have a full life and have every reason to be happy, but your brain is fighting you with its chemistry telling you to be sad and distrustful because there’s harm around every corner.
Depression can affect anyone. It can have a rapid onset at anytime. Some handle it differently than others. Medications are very useful but are highly individual as brain chemistry varies with people. It can take years to find the right combination of medication and coping strategies to help people function fully in their lives. It certainly is nowhere near an exact science. Oftentimes depression can take lives when that delicate combination fails or is not determined quickly enough. Depression is often described as “the black dog” who lurks around every corner waiting to attack.
For those who do not suffer, it is important we understand what is/is not helpful when we interact with those in our lives who struggle with “the black dog”.
Things to note…
- There is no “getting over it quickly”, “snapping out of it”, “focusing on the positive”. with depression.
- It isn’t something that can be turned off/on at will.
- It is a full body experience. It’s exhausting and hard to cope with for many people.
- Communication is exceedingly difficult when someone is low.
- Blame is harmful. People who suffer can not control what’s happening to them. They wish they could. Blaming them will hurt your relationship and could cause further damage.
How we respond to our loved ones and friends who suffer depression can make an impact on them…positive or negative.
Here are some beneficial ways to respond when a loved one/friend is suffering and/or having a low day…as well as what to look for…
- Offer an ear. They don’t need platitudes or words of insincere encouragement. Sometimes they just need someone to listen without saying anything.
- Tell them they matter to you with honesty. Give them examples of what they do to make your life better.
- Visit them often assuring them that you want to be in their company even if that means sitting on the couch, not speaking, and watching netflix.
- They may push you away as a means to cope or be less of a burden. Remind them how important they are to you, that you are there and they matter to you.
- Do not be insincere. Be patient and say that you are their friend. You are here. Supporting each other is what friends do. This is not a burden.
- Watch for changes in behavior. If a sudden shift to “happy” happens, stay close to your loved one. They may be struggling and be wearing a mask.
- Spending time and understanding how to interact with your loved one can give insight to what helps them when they are low. If they know on a regular basis that you are here for them, they will reach out and talk when they need.
- Understand that they may have angry words to push you away as they may be low, this doesn’t mean they don’t care. Sometimes there is a comfort in quiet in not being around others. Sometimes this is a sign they need care. Communicating when they are not low helps understand what your loved one needs when they do this.
- Being a friend/loved one to someone who suffers depression can be challenging and frustrating at times. This is ok. Be certain to institute your own self care to ensure you have a healthy outlook in order to respond helpfully.
- The may have the mindset that no one cares about them. It is important to reinforce how very wrong this is. However, it is also important to understand that compassion must couple with any statements you make in regards to stating their argument is incorrect…you do care about and love them.
- Do not be afraid to ask if they are having thoughts of suicide or self harm. Giving your friend a free space to just talk without fear or judgment can be all a person needs. Oftentimes they do not want to hurt themselves, they need to get the words and feelings out safely. If you think the threat is serious, call a professional to help and give advice.
- Listen. Ask them when they are not low what you can do to help them wade through the storm at varying levels of depression. Asking what their level is that day can help you understand how to respond.
This post is a compilation of thoughts and input from various people who suffer depression and what they think as well as feel helps them get through. I welcome any input, stories, and perspectives I can add to raise awareness on how to effectively respond to those who suffer.
Depression is killing so many people. It is not a pronounced illness like a persistent cough or skin sore. It is your own mind battling you to function each day…The one thing that is in charge of everything is not working to efficient capacity and/or is working in the wrong way. It is your rational mind fighting to make it through each hour and wondering when the agony will cease. There are good days and there are bad days.
How we respond to those who suffer matters. We can do harm in our response. We can also help. People who suffer are not a burden. They are important. They are the people we love. They need to know they are not alone and that we care as well as cherish every moment with them. Understanding, compassion, and education are key in leashing the black dog and making it heel. What matters to those who suffer is that they have people who love them though they may not understand the pain…but are better for having them in their lives.
I leave you with Elizabeth Wurtzel…
Thank you for reading,
For more information on depression and to see the references I used for this article, visit the links below…