Depression Marathon Blog

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Diagnosed with depression 18 years ago, I lost the life I once knew, but in the process re-created a better me. I am alive and functional today because of my dog, my treatment team, my sobriety, and my willingness to re-create myself within the confines of this illness. I hate the illness, but I'm grateful for the person I've become and the opportunities I've seized because of it. I hope writing a depression blog will reduce stigma and improve the understanding and treatment of people with mental illness. All original content copyright to me: etta. Enjoy your visit!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

How to Help Those with Depression

I have a friend who is struggling with her depression right now. It's different for me to be on this side of the scene. Usually I'm the one in need. Her struggle has me thinking about what I appreciate when I'm not doing well. I have the advantage of understanding her illness and needs from the inside. But for those on the outside looking in, I think supporting someone with a mental illness is not as intuitive as supporting a friend or family member with, for example, cancer or MS. Here are a few ways you may be able to help your loved one with depression.

First of all, get past the stigma of mental illness and remember it is an illness, no different nor any less debilitating than other, more publicly acceptable illnesses. Depression is not a weakness. It is not caused by thinking negative thoughts or not socializing enough. (Those are actually symptoms, not causes of depression.) Depression is caused by biological, chemical processes gone awry, just as is the case for cancer, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis.

Likewise, depression is not cured by being "more positive" or by "pulling oneself up by the bootstraps." Charging forward as if nothing is wrong doesn't work either. Depression often requires intervention. It may be treated with hospitalization, medication, counseling, ECT, and/or a variety of newer interventions including Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or Ketamine. And if, like me, your loved one has treatment resistant depression, it may require multiple interventions, similar to other chronic illnesses.

With that in mind, I urge people to treat a loved one with depression just as they would treat a loved one with any other debilitating illness. If hospitalized, send your friend or family member a card, some flowers, or a balloon bouquet. Support him or her with words of encouragement. And visit! You don't have to know what to say. You don't have to say anything. Sometimes it's just nice to be in the presence of somebody who cares.

If a loved one is unable to work because of depression, they likely are unable to take care of the house, the yard, the car, or the children/pets, too. Again, just as you would for a person with another debilitating condition, offer to help out. When I'm sick, it's difficult to do anything around my house, but cooking especially suffers. I appreciate offers to get groceries or to cook a meal. Walk my dog, mow the yard or shovel the snow. Depression saps my energy and makes even little things feel overwhelming. Offer to do something practical. It will make a big difference.

However, if helping with chores is not your forte, at the very least keep in touch. Depression is an isolating illness. Isolation is a symptom of the illness, but it is also an unfortunate result of having a poorly understood, stigmatized condition. Friends and family, perhaps out of shame, or I think often it is simply a result of not knowing what to say or do; friends and family sometimes disappear. It's happened to me. And based on past comments on this blog, it has routinely happened to others, too. Even if you don't know what to say or do, even if you're uncomfortable and don't understand what's going on, don't leave your loved one on an island. Don't disappear.

Stay present, but don't expect you have to fix our depression. We don't expect that, and frankly trying to fix me only makes me feel worse. When I don't feel well, it is not helpful if someone tries to commiserate. I end up feeling more isolated and misunderstood. You see, all of us have felt depressed. Feeling depressed is part of the human condition, which is why people (without depression) think they can fix it in others. But feeling depressed is not depression. Depressed is a feeling. Depression is an illness. 

There is so much more to depression than feeling sad or low. From thinking to concentration to movement to bathing and sleeping, depression affects it all. It is a life altering, sometimes life threatening, debilitating condition. Let your friend know you're available. Assure your family member that although you may not understand their struggle, you're willing to assist, to listen, or simply to sit. Be there. That's enough. Fixing is not required.

I plan to be present for my friend. I don't yet know exactly what she needs or where she needs help, but I'll do my best to be available. And that may be all she needs, simply to know somebody is available. For me, when I don't feel well, it's often just that simple.


Paul said...

When depression takes me, it's frightening how CERTAIN I am that I will never escape it (and how SENSIBLE some "solutions" seem at the time!!!!!). For me it is tremendously hard to realize/accept/understand that there will be a time when I will rise from the depths, when I will be free (for a short or long period) from its grip. When bleakness won't be the only thing I see and feel. This is hard to understand at the time, but this is also what seems to keep me going. Knowing/remembering at some intellectual level -- certainly not at an emotional level -- that I will get beyond it. If I can find that within me, I can endure the darkness. It's still hard, but it's not impossible then.

Of course if some helpful person tried to tell me this, I wouldn't believe them.

"Depressed is a feeling. Depression is an illness." Perfectly said!

etta said...

@ Paul: So true. When I am feeling at the end of my rope, when I am certain I will never feel better, my psychologist reminds me I have ALWAYS come thru the darkness in the past. Of course, she's proven herself right so many times, I kind of like the reminder now. I never think of it on my own so her reminder of that FACT is usually helpful. Perhaps I should mention that to my friends. Perhaps a reminder of the fact from them would also be reassuring.

Julie Gathman said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent. Thank you. Very helpful.

Julie Gathman said...

Did you know that whenever we post a comment, we have to prove we are not a robot by clicking through 2 or even 3 screens of photos where we pick out fire hydrants, busses, or traffic lights? Is there any way you can turn this off?

etta said...

@ Julie: No. I did not know that. I usually only have to click one box. Not sure I can change it, but I'll check.