May is Mental Health month. I thought I would make a little contribution to this cause by sharing an article I wrote a while ago on depression, how we can understand it better and what to do in an attempt to help sufferers.
Depression. I remember clearly I used to think this was some sort of “made up” condition that people had just so they could get away with lazying around and doing nothing all day. That was until I found myself on the edge of falling into the deep, dark abyss that is depression. Fortunately for me, my situation was more of burnout from work politics and pressure. I decided to take a break so that I could rest, refocus and re-energise. After my time away from work, I felt so much better. I realised all I had needed was a good rest as I was exhausted from working too hard and for too long without a break. Removing myself from a highly toxic work environment was also key. If I had not made the decision to stop and take a break, I am quite sure my burnout would have developed into a severe bout of depression. Unfortunately, those that suffer from real depression are not always so lucky. This is especially so in the African culture.
Generally speaking, depression is not recognised as a serious illness/condition throughout Africa. This was made glaringly obvious to me when I was trying to do some research for this piece. Research data on depression in Africa is extremely hard to come by. Documented stories about African women who have come forward with their stories on how their have suffered from depression are even more rare. Why is this?
African women and girls are widely not expected by society to complain about much. Most of us are expected to just accept whatever comes our way with an air of resignation and simply get on with the “more important” jobs of being wives and mothers. When we get abused in relationships we are expected to accept because “that is what men are like dear, you just need to make sure you keep your marriage intact”. When we are not allowed to reach our full potential in the work place we are expected to just stomach it because “well, just be grateful you actually have a job dear”. Now, who will take us seriously because of a little depression? We are expected to get over it quickly and pull ourselves together. However, depression, if left untreated can be extremely damaging and dangerous. It can lead to long term serious mental illness and even push the sufferer to commit suicide. For us to know how to deal with depression, we will need to understand it better.
What is depression?
The medical website mayoclinic.org defines depression as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems”.
Causes of depression
Zimbabwean doctor based in the UK, Dr Brighton Chireka says that there is no single known cause of depression. Different people can have different triggers. Dr Chireka says that life-changing events, such as bereavement, divorce, violence, infertility, losing your job or unwanted pregnancy – even having a baby, can bring it on. It is quite common and affects about 1 in 10 of us at some point. It affects men and women, young and old, black or white people. It also runs in the family, meaning that if someone in your family has suffered from depression in the past, such as a parent or sister or brother, then it’s more likely you will too.
Types of depression
There are over nine different types of depression. Edward Hunt, a District of Columbia-based therapist, says the most commonly diagnosed form of depression is major depressive disorder, which is typically defined by symptoms such as “depressed mood, loss of interest, weight loss and loss of energy for at least two weeks continuously. If you suspect a colleague or loved one of suffering from depression, you will need to tactfully get them assistance from a professional who can diagnose the specific type they are suffering from and subsequently afford them the most appropriate treatment.
How to tell if someone is depressed
Sometimes we tend to be a bit harsh towards people who we think are just sulking or being moody or if it’s at work, those who we perceive as not pulling their weight. This is because there still a lot of work to be done on educating our communities on depression, its causes and how to identify it. Yes, we all have days when we’re down and out whether its due to PMS, a recent bereavement or whatever personal problem we may be encountering. Depression however, goes beyond that and we need to learn how to identify it in others and in ourselves.
How to tell if someone else is depressed
• Loss of interest in things that were previously pleasurable
• Sleep difficulties
• Eating changes
• Anger and irritability
• Expressing negative thoughts
• Suicidal ideas
• Loss of confidence in oneself
• No energy to do anything
How to tell you may be depressed
• you feel hopeless and helpless
• you have lost interest in friends, activities, and things you used to enjoy
• you feel tired all the time
• your sleep and appetite has changed
• you can’t concentrate or find that previously easy tasks are now difficult
• you can’t control your negative thoughts, no matter how much you try
• you are much more irritable, short-tempered, or aggressive than usual
• you’re consuming more alcohol than normal or engaging in other reckless behaviour
How to assist a depressed person
A depressed person is in a state of extreme vulnerability and sensitiveness. They feel alone and that no-one really understands what they are going through. Sometimes they may even feel that if they open up, those around them will mock them for being silly and not behaving “like an adult”. It is for this reason that we need to be genuinely sympathetic and to empathise with sufferers. Below are the types of things we should and should not say in our attempt to help sufferers.
What you can say that helps:
• You are not alone in this. I’m here for you.
• You may not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change.
• I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.
• When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold on for just one more day, hour, minute—whatever you can manage.
• You are important to me. Your life is important to me.
• Tell me what I can do now to help you.
• It’s all in your head.
• We all go through times like this.
• Look on the bright side.
• You have so much to live for why do you want to die?
• I can’t do anything about your situation.
• Just snap out of it.
• What’s wrong with you?
• Shouldn’t you be better by now?
All is not doom and gloom though when it comes to depression. It is quite treatable and there are two main ways in which this can be done; talk therapy and medicine. The therapist will provide a treatment programme based on one or a combination of both. Talk therapy involves talking to a trained therapist and discussing one’s feelings. The
aim of this is to try and get to the bottom of what exactly is causing the depression. This is especially helpful as many people tend to find it easier to have intimate conversations with strangers and are more likely to open up than how they would with close family members.
Medical website http://www.webmd.com lists three main types of talk therapy:
• Cognitive behavioral therapy helps the patient see how behaviors and the way they think about things plays a role in their depression. The therapist will help them change some of these unhealthy patterns.
• Interpersonal therapy focuses on the patient’s relationships with other people and how they affect them. The therapist will also help them pinpoint and change unhealthy habits.
• Problem-solving therapy focuses on the specific problems they face and helps them find solutions.
Medicines are the other key treatment for depression. Antidepressants work by balancing chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters that affect mood and emotions. These anti-depression medicines can help improve mood, sleep patterns and increase appetite and concentration.
As the family and friends of sufferers, it is entirely up to us to assist our loved ones to get well. Remember, many severely depressed people appear to be very happy and care free. Many families have been left in shock when a family member suddenly commits suicide and they don’t understand why. It is important to remember to be sensitive and patient, even though we may not fully understand or appreciate what the depressed person is going through. Recovery takes time and unwavering support is required. It is highly recommended that the sufferer be put in touch with a trained counsellor or therapist who can hold their hand on the journey to wellness. Here in Zimbabwe, there are several organisations that provide professional counselling services most notably Connect Zimbabwe and The Christian Counselling and Depression Trust. Many more helpful organisations can also be accessed on the Kubatana website. You can also click here for a list of international depression help lines.
I hope this article has been a little helpful in assisting us to understand this horrible illness a bit better. Do you suffer from depression? What has been your experience? What do you feel other people around you can do (or not do) to help? Please do share if you can, your story might help someone else.
Love and light.