Mental illness has been a subject of much fear and mystery to humans for centuries. We fear that being mentally ill means we’re morally compromised, not safe for others to be around, tainted by the devil, bewitched, possessed, being punished by God, not trustworthy, scary, or just plain bad. People have a very hard time thinking of the brain as an organ in our body, like all other organs, that may be damaged or neurologically different or broken. To admit that our emotions might be largely controlled by chemical deficiencies in the brain freaks people out. If our emotions are nothing more than chemical messages being sent from our brain to our nervous system – what does that say about our will, or spirits, our SOULS? Does that mean that what we feel isn’t really real? Are emotions and thoughts nothing more than electrical impulses?
Many strides have been made to change the medieval fear people have about mental illness, lots of progress has been made scientifically to expand our understanding of what causes it and how we can treat it. Unfortunately there is a huge movement of people who refuse to believe that the brain can have disorders that are out of our control – that can’t be fixed with will power, positive thinking, diet, and exercise. These people are very vocal and to the population of people with major depressive disorder, very dangerous.
Depression is often accompanied by anxiety, as is the case with me, but I’m only addressing the depression specifically here. You can take it that many of the triggers and causes of depression are the same for anxiety but the treatment can be quite different. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps ease my anxiety but does nothing to ease my depression. So please note that I’m only discussing depression here.
It is also important to note that I’m putting this in layman’s terms but will provide links to professional descriptions of depression for you to read yourself.
Different kinds of Depression:
Major Depressive Disorder – Major depression can run in families and is commonly described as being an issue with chemical imbalances in the brain or a problem with the brain’s ability to communicate with the nervous system or deliver the chemicals necessary for balanced functioning. It is characterized by debilitating depressive episodes that interfere with a person’s ability to function normally. Some people may only experience one episode in their lifetime but most often this is a recurring problem.
Situational Depression – This is depression that you experience because of external factors such as job loss, death of a loved one, sickness, poor diet, not enough exercise, bad relationships. If you address the factors that made you depressed the depression will most likely ease up or completely disappear.
Bipolar Disorder – Another chronic depressive disorder (and there is more than one classification for this one) that often runs in families. This depression is distinctive for the dramatically alternating depressive and manic states experienced. A few classic problems experienced by people with bipolar disorder are difficulty maintaining relationships, risky behaviors such as wild spending of money, unsafe sexual activity, and carelessness with personal safety.
Suicide – suicidal ideation may accompany any of the mood disorders but NAMI lists it as a separate issue on their site. Feelings of being a failure, of hopelessness, of being overwhelmed, of worthlessness, and of powerlessness can all contribute to a desire to kill one’s self. One of the dangers of suicide is that a lot of people who succeed at committing it don’t actually announce their intentions. But if someone you know expresses suicidal thinking it’s imperative that they get help from a professional – NOT a New Age guru or from life coaches or from anyone who has no clue about the complex issues of the brain and how they can collide to inspire a person to kill themself.
In order to treat depression it is vital for a professional trained in diagnosing mental illness to discover which specific kind of depression an individual has because the methods for treating each one are very different. If you medicate a person with bipolar disorder with medications appropriate for people with major depressive disorder you could make their condition much worse. Approaches to therapy may also vary quite a lot. A person with situational depression is going to have much different needs than someone with major depressive disorder.
I was suicidal as a teen and was given the most awful collection of advice during my suicidal years from idiots who knew nothing about depression and made me feel worse about myself because their suggestions didn’t fix my depression and that compounded the feeling that I had depression because I was a weak and bad person and that if I was stronger or not a complete failure then getting more exercise would lift my depression like everyone said it would. When I finally did get professional help I wished I’d gotten it 18 years of suffering earlier. I wish to god I hadn’t listened to so many ill-informed people who don’t know anything about mental illness, half of which really didn’t believe in it at all. People who think mental illness (especially depression) is just a state of mind are ignorant and dangerous to those of us suffering from serious persistent mental illness.
I’ll tell you what else: my parents never knew I was even depressed. My friends knew I was depressed and some of them knew about my self harm but I did not go around threatening to kill myself. It may have been obvious to close friends – I certainly had a fixation with death and dying but I don’t think anyone knew how many times I came close to doing it and how much time I spent planning how I would die. Just because someone isn’t threatening suicide doesn’t mean that they aren’t thinking about it and will become very serious about it.
Here’s my urgent plea to all of you:
If you know someone who seems really depressed do NOT give them advice on how to treat their depression unless you are a professional. Give them your ear, show that you care and are there for them if they want to talk or need your help – but do not advise them on how to fix themselves unless you are a professional and have discovered what specific type of depression they’re suffering from. If you want to be more helpful and haven’t already read about depression from expert sources the first thing you should do is some reading. If you’re really concerned about someone gently suggest they get professional help. It can be a scary step to take but also can transform a life of suffering and struggle into one of quality and balance. I’ve gotten someone to get psychiatric help and they went from talking about suicide to living a much more balanced and happy life.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent and reliable source for information about all mental illnesses and I highly recommend you read about the different kinds of depression listed there:
The National Institute of Mental Health is also an excellent source of reliable information. I’m giving the link that describes the different kinds of depression but they have many more pages about treatments, clinical trials, scientific information, lists of symptoms. Please dig through their site to inform yourself if you haven’t already done so:
For those of you who love and trust WebMD they also have reliable information (I’m pretty sure they get theirs from the previous two sites but they word things a little differently and might strike a better chord with some:
The very first step to treating depression is to find out what kind you have. Get help. It may take a few tries to find a doctor you trust but that’s really important. If you go to a psychiatric doctor and don’t like him/her then they won’t be able to help you. I lucked out the first time and found a great psychologist but don’t give up if it takes you a few tries. If you suffer from depression – getting professional help is the best thing you can do for yourself. You do NOT have to take medications if you don’t feel they’re right for you (but in many cases other types of therapy are more effective in conjunction with medication – that’s just a fact, not my opinion) but you do need to find out what kind of depression you have in order to plan your treatment.
It’s not your fault: if you suffer from chronic depression it is NOT your fault. It is NOT anything you did wrong or anything you did at all. External factors such as diet and exercise can definitely make clinical depression worse (or better) but that isn’t the cause and won’t be the cure.
You are not alone.
You’re part of my tribe. Our tribe is very large and vulnerable but the more we talk about mental illness and bring it out into the light the less of a stigma will be attached to it and the less ignorance of others will hurt us. You are not alone.
One last thing – if you or someone you know is at high risk of committing suicide please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: