I have never been shy about discussing my depression, at least not since I got over the initial ‘coming to terms’ stage. I am well aware of the stigma that is associated with depression and mental illness in general. But I am also far too aware of the consequences of ignoring the signs and symptoms to let stigma stand in the way of spreading awareness of my condition. Disease, really, because that’s exactly what depression is. A disease, much like cancer, which can have devastating effects if not treated properly.
I have struggled with major depressive disorder since my diagnosis in 1998, at the age of 22. I use the word ‘struggle’, despite the fact that it is not considered favorable terminology for people living with various diseases and conditions, because it is the truth, and sugar-coating it won’t do a damn bit of good for anyone. I struggle on a daily basis – to remember my medications, to keep my emotions in check (as best I can), to remind myself that there is love, help, and support within arm’s reach for when I need it. Even with medication, I still deal with symptoms of depression every day, since no medication can completely eliminate all of them. But I also struggle with cyclical bouts of depression that medication can’t fully eradicate. Oh, it definitely helps, no doubt. I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. But nothing can fully treat or even begin to cure my disease.
I don’t know that it is possible to actually describe what major depression feels like. Major depression can manifest itself in many different ways, depending on the person. The most common feelings involve persistent sadness, hopelessness or helplessness, irritability, abnormal sleep or appetite patterns, unexplained aches or pains, and thoughts of harming oneself or suicide.
But those are just words used to describe the symptoms. The reality is, for those who are truly suffering and not getting adequate treatment, it is a far more bleak description. There is a feeling of deep sadness, yes, but a sadness like no other. Imagine being trapped in a well, with no hope of escape or even a desire to escape. It is dark and cold, and there is pain like no physical pain you could ever experience. It is a desperate place, and one that cannot be imagined unless you have been there. I have been there. And when you reach the cold, dark, rock bottom of that well, sometimes it seems like suicide is the only way out. Most suffer alone, either because they feel like they don’t have anyone who understands and can help, or because they have simply reached the point where they no longer believe that there is another way out.
In the wake of yet another high-profile suicide, everyone has their two cents to put in on the subject. It is easy for people who have never reached the bottom of the well, or who don’t even know of its existence, to talk about suicide as a selfish act. It’s not about being selfish. When you are in the well, your brain will fool you into believing there are no other options. Of course, it’s easy for us to talk about how there are other options, but I’m not exaggerating when I tell you there are none when you are in that deep.
The single most important thing we can do when something like this happens is to use it as an opportunity to make people aware of the signs and symptoms of depression, so that they can recognize when someone is struggling and try to get them help, or find help for themselves. Far too many people do not know how to recognize depression, and that is a travesty. Countless lives can be saved if people will just make themselves aware and actually do something. People struggling with untreated depression may act crazy at times, but they are not crazy, they are sick and they need help.
Ways you can help
Simply offering to listen can start you down the path to helping someone recognize his depression and to get treatment. Never be judgmental or discount his feelings, even if you think they are wrong or strange. And always remind him that he can get better and that there is help available.
One person can make all the difference in the life of someone suffering from depression. Letting him know that he is not crazy, that he’s done nothing wrong, and that this can be fixed will make treatment and recovery much easier for him.
Never ignore talk of someone hurting or killing himself. This is something you should report to his doctor right away.
If you find yourself in a crisis situation, first and foremost, do not leave this person alone. If you can convince him to seek help, you can have him call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 so that he can speak with a trained counselor. If he is uncooperative or unresponsive, immediately dial 911 and have him transported to the nearest emergency room, where he will be safe and can receive help. This may be difficult for you to do, especially if you are afraid of losing his trust. But it may be the only way to save his life.
For more information:
Visit the National Institute of Mental Health’s publication on depression. You can read it online, download a PDF or E-Reader files, or order a free hard copy to be mailed to you.
DBSA provides information on depression and bipolar disorder, online tools, and support groups across the USA. Find help from the leading national organization for people with mood disorders.