Sunday, 20 July 2008

How To Deal With Meeting A Person With Depression

It is a sad fact of life but the majority of people in this country feel very uncomfortable about the subject of mental illness. What makes it worse is that a significant proportion of the population are likely to suffer from the most common form of mental illness, depression, at some point in their lives, yet that particular illness still carries a serious stigma with it.

The problem for the sufferer of depression is that it can be a very debilitating illness, but to the majority of non-sufferers that you meet you show no signs of having anything wrong with you. There are no tell-tale spots or rash, you have no stitches, bandages or plaster cast, and you don't require sticks, crutches, or a walking frame to get around. You can be, however, very seriously ill indeed and yet there are no outward signs that would be obvious to those that you meet. So short of carrying a bell or clapper like the lepers of long ago, or wearing a notice around your neck proclaiming "I have depression; treat me carefully" most people would not realise that there is anything wrong with your health.

I don't know how depression manifests itself in other people, I can only describe what I feel, but my depression is not only something that affects the way that I feel about things, it also has some very definite symptoms that I feel physically. When it is at its worst, depression makes me feel as though my head and body are not connected to each other. My body feels numb, like the numbness that you feel in your lip after having an injection at the dentist's, and my head has a woolly feeling with a tendency to feel very light-headed as though I have drunk alcohol on an empty stomach. All of this is combined with an overwhelming desire to cry, though I have no idea what I am crying about, it is just something that I have to do.

So these are the physical symptoms that I feel, which in themselves may not seem like much, but are nonetheless capable of lowering my mental state to a level even lower than it is already. I find it impossible to concentrate; reading becomes something that is unbelievably difficult. I have always loved reading, and half an hour with a good book before I lay down to sleep was the perfect end to the day. Now I find that I have to read the same page repeatedly to stand any chance of understanding what I have read. I have always been shy, but depression makes it incredibly difficult to interact with people that I do not know. Social functions become trials that can cause anxiety to build up days in advance, and small talk something to be avoided because you are likely to become tongue-tied while attempting to have the simplest conversation.

When somebody asks you "How are you?" you answer automatically "Fine" although you aren't really. You answer like this because you know that they really don't want to know that it took a monumental effort to get out of bed, that getting yourself to this stage in the day has been a war against irrational feelings, and that if they ask you anything else you are likely to burst into tears. You hate it when they say "Smile, things could be worse" when you know that there is nothing that could make you feel worse than you do at that particular moment and and smiling is the last thing on your mind because you are finding it almost impossible to just exist. If you were to answer the "How are you?" question truthfully, the questioner would become embarrassed and not know how to further the conversation because they would find it difficult to deal with someone with a mental illness.

Mental illness is something that happens to people. They don't ask for it, and they most certainly would prefer not to have it. Unfortunately, while the medical profession has made incredible advances in the treatment of many of the diseases and injuries that affect us physically, diseases of the brain are not so easy to treat. While we are very similar physically, we are all unique mentally; that is what makes it so difficult to 'cure' mental illnesses.

The next time that you meet someone who suffers from depression, please remember that they are a human being just like you, they don't want to feel the way that they do, and that you can't catch what they have got through contact with them. But most of all, remember that they don't like being stigmatized because they have a mental illness. Remember that; because at some time in the future the person with depression could be you.


chocolate_whizz said...

This is beautifully written. I really hope it gets a lot of hits because its a must read for a lot of people.

I too suffer from depression(bipolar depressive to be more anal about it) and have been offered all sorts of entirely unhelpful advice when I have been honest about my condition. "Walk it off" "put things into perspective" "think of Africa."

They fail to grasp the fact that you can think about starving kids in Africa all you like, but thats more likely to contribute to your depression as apposed to brighten you up. Too many people aren't aware that depression is biological in it's origins, you may only see the psychological impacts of it, but it's as serious a condition as cancer. And is certainly not something you can "walk off."

My father thinks my disorder is an excuse to be lazy and steal money from the government. Him and his family do not consider depression or bipolar as a legitimate illness worthy of respect for overcoming, or support for going through. The sooner we educate non-sufferers and eliminate the stigma the better.

The people that surround you influence you so much when you're in a depressive state. A helping hand can go a tremendously long way...but I think people are too afraid to reach out their hand because they don't understand it. If, like you talked about, there were physical side effects such as a rash, or stomach pains...they would no doubt find it easier to help out with, because they can understand, or at least relate to it.

Man it feels like I'm talking a lot. But I also wanted to mention the not knowing what to say when people ask how you are thing. Thats horrible, it's the same with "What are you doing these days?" (because my response would be, nothing, I'm debilitated by depression to the point where I can't write a comprehensible sentence or muster the energy to get out of bed before the suns already setting.) What are we supposed to say??? there should be some sort of guide book on how to tell people you're miserable and still make a good impression.

I think next time someone asks how I am, just to see what happens, and to feel free, I'm going to respond with "suicidal"

Er...anyway, wonderful blog. Beautifully executed. Really got the point across. Sorry if I sound like a school teacher, this is the first blog I've commented on so I'm not to sure what I'm supposed to say. If I was a school teacher I would give you a well done sticker. One of the big, sparkly mother fuckers, not the little ones.

Anonymous said...

A very thoughtful and accurate post. Like a lot of doctors I've suffered from depression myself (we are the profession with the highest rates of mental illness especially depression, alcoholism and suicide), and your post rang many bells for me on a personal note, as well as reflecting what my patients with depression have told me.

I feel very strongly that having gone through an episode of depression has not only made me a better and more empathetic doctor, but also a better and stronger person.

You will feel the same in time, even if it doesn't feel like that time will ever come. Depression is as old as time, and takes no notice of personality or status. King Solomon reportedly wore a ring on which was engraved "This too shall pass", which gave him comfort in times of depression. Winston Churchill, another depressive, popularised the phrase "the black dog" to describe his illness, and he also told himself to "Keep Buggering On".

Best wishes in your journey.

steph said...

Hi again, Madsadgirl

Insightful piece and well articulated.

I understand the predicament you find yourself in as regards social gatherings. I've luckily never suffered from depression but I'm surrounded by close family members who do so I know well where you're coming from. I also have a chronic medical condition (Ehlers-Danlos syndrome)which affects every aspect of my life yet is not easily visible. It's poorly understood as a condition and I can assure you that the reactions from many people, would be very similar to your experience.

My way of dealing with this is to respond to people who ask how I am with "I'm okay at the moment, thanks". Those who fail to respond to this cue are not worth worrying about. Those who do respond, are more likely to understand your situation. You have to remember that you can't change people no matter how much you may want to. There is a huge amount of ignorance out there around illness of all kinds. I've learnt over the years not to get upset by superficial people and instead to concentrate on the 'real' people. One well-meaning person is worth a thousand of the others.

I bet the two other comments so far on this post are worth more than any social function!

Dragonfly said...

Thanks for sharing this beautifully written peace with us.