Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Elephant in the Living Room

There is an elephant in our living room.  Sometimes it sits quietly and we work our way around it.  Sometimes it’s loud and aggressive, demanding all of our attention.  Sometimes it sits on my chest making it impossible to move and difficult to breathe.

The elephant's name is Depression, and it visits one person in three at some point in their lives.  We just don’t talk about it.

I don’t pretend to understand all of the factors contributing to depression.  I do know that they vary from person to person.  I know that there is a chemical factor, involving your brain's uptake of serotonin.  I know that heredity is often a factor, but not always.  I know that depression is often the result of either a deep personal loss or of prolonged mental and/or physical stress.  Whatever its causes, clinical depression is a real, and serious, affliction. 

If you've never experienced depression, it’s all too easy to ascribe its symptoms to laziness or to a lack of backbone and determination, but the effects of depression--both physical and psychological--are very real.  People suffering from depression are often subject to either insomnia or chronic fatigue (or both), lethargy, changes in appetite, headaches, muscular and joint pain, digestive complaints, and suppressed immune system response.  For many people who are depressed, thoughts of suicide are not merely an occasional visitor but are, instead, a constant companion. They're demon that rides the elephant.

A wide range of medications are available to treat depression, and counseling services can be accessed, but many people who are experiencing clinical depression don’t seek medical help.  In part this is because depression renders them unable to recognize the cause of their malaise.  In part it’s because depression, or the suggestion of any other sort of mental illness, carries with it a tremendous stigma.

In our society, admitting to depression can reduce your opportunities to make social connections, and to find work.  Some jobs, and even some volunteer positions, require security licensing or bonding that can be denied if any history of mental illness--including clinical depression--exists.

Although many patients need to continue medication over the long term, with proper treatment most people move through depression and recover their well being.  Some people, once recovered, never experience depression again. 

What is certain is that people are better able to cope with the challenges posed by clinical depression if they have the support of family and friends.  If you suspect that a loved one is suffering from depression, discuss it with them.  Encourage them to seek help.  Be there to listen and to help out.  Be patient.

If you would like to learn more about depression or to contact people who can provide assistance in seeking support, these organizations may be helpful to you:
image adapted from Eye of Elephant by Miachelle Depiano via smithsonianmag.