Depression: Why Talking Isn’t Enough

Depression: Why Talking Isn't Enough

Talking about mental illness openly is an important step towards ridding humanity of a stigma that’s breathtaking in its ignorance and dangerous in its effect. But something more needs to happen.

The mental illness umbrella has a broad reach and the disorders that fall beneath it are as diverse as the people affected by them. Some disorders, such as anxiety and depression, lie on a spectrum of normal human behavior and it’s likely that most of us, if not all of us, have teetered somewhere within its reach.

The depth and breadth of the mental illness tag means that an illness such as depression, which is not dangerous to anyone but the sufferer, is being bundled with disorders that are. This continues to feed a stigma that pathologises not only the illness, but also the person. It has implications for all of us.

A formal diagnosis of clinical depression requires the presence of a cluster of symptoms over an extended period. The symptoms are characteristic of normal human experience – sadness, hopelessness, lack of vitality, lack of engagement, disordered sleeping and eating patterns. Each is a normal and valid human response though sometimes, the duration and intensity can become too much and this is when a diagnosis of clinical depression may follow.

I’ve never had clinical depression, but I’ve experienced sadness so deep and engulfing it stole me for a while. I can still remember the ache. I’ve felt desperately hopeless at times and on others frighteningly disengaged. I don’t know how it was that I found my way through. I just did. I also know, with every cell in my body that it could just as easily have gone the other way.

Depression is a deficiency in chemistry, not character. It can happen to anyone. Though it is true that some personality traits make people vulnerable to depression, those same traits also make those people warm, successful, wise, funny, kind, capable and strong. The strength needed to carry on each day with a mental illness is immense.

There is absolutely no evidence – none – that depression causes people to be dangerous or harmful. It’s true that many who have behaved anti-socially have depression, but they also have skin, parents, possibly a mortgage, a job, children. It’s a numbers game and the number of people who suffer from depression is so high, and its reach to exceptionally wide, that people with depression are going to be represented on some level in vile, criminal acts. Doctors and teachers will also be represented. So will diabetics, mothers and taxi drivers. That depression is sometimes represented in the profile of the anti-social does not mean it’s the cause and to suggest otherwise is spectacularly misinformed.

The need to understand and make sense of the world around us is something that has lead humanity to greatness on many fronts. It is our curiosity and our capacity to extend ourselves to satisfy that curiosity that progresses our relationships, society and humanity. It can also be our downfall.

Some things can’t be explained. For all of our collected wisdom, empathy and intelligence, some things just don’t make sense, and they never will. The drive for closure and for understanding means that society has a tendency to reach for anything to fill the knowledge gap. The easiest ‘anything’ will be that which we understand the least. When it comes to unfathomable human behavior, it’s often whatever mental illness diagnosis is within reach. This not only maintains the stigma, it flourishes it.

Talking about mental illness is important, but in order to destigmatise it, we need to demystify it. Depression can be understood as another adaptive process – a normal response to an often abnormal situation. We all have needs we cannot give up – the need for connection, appreciation and belonging are a few. If the need is not met, attempts will be made to let it go, ignore it or have it met elsewhere. If the need remains important, and the environment unsupportive, the need will be ignored but it will never disappear. The best way to ignore something is to push it well out of the way – to, quite literally, depress it.

The more we stigmatise depression, the more we inadvertently encourage this response. We stop talking. We stop normalising. We stop responding. Isolation, shame and disconnection thrive. The more we grab onto depression to explain the inexplicable, the more we encourage people to ‘depress’ and to keep quiet about their own struggles. The very thing we are fighting, we will force.

As long as we view depression as a maladaptive response, rather than embrace it as existing on the spectrum of a normal one, people will continue to depress. It’s no wonder then that depression is on the rise. We can only speculate as to how different the statistics would be if we were a humanity that embraced emotional vulnerability, rather than pathologised it. The capacity is there, just waiting on the will.

When we accept depression for what it is – a normal part of being human, perhaps then the stigma will start to loosen.

This article appeared on The Huffington Post UK on 1 April 2015. 

(Image Credit: Unsplash | Ravi Roshen)

4 Comments

Samantha

This article says it pretty much how I’ve tried to explain it to people who do not understand what I am going through – anxiety.

Karen, can you possibly point out some more science-y articles that can explain the physiological changes in the body that causes the feelings of depression and anxiety?

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David

I believe your article has tapped into a huge gap of knowledge and discussion. Thank you for writing it. It encouraged me to find new thought patterns that ultimately help me find meaning.

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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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Because sales are the best, and Christmas is the best, and helping kiddos find their brave is the very best of all! So, to celebrate the end of the year (because truly, it's been a year hasn't it), and to help you settle brave hearts for next year, or night times, or separations, or, you know, all the things, we're taking 25% off books and plushies in the Hey Sigmund shop.

There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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