Compassionate Love: Displaying Compassion for Those Who Struggle with Mental Illness (c)2016 Nancy Virden
Yesterday was my second visit to a Cleveland public high school where students in seven classes welcomed me to share on depression, suicide, and how to be supportive of a friend who is struggling. Some overheard comments proved once again that in general, our society struggles with deep wells of confusion about depression and suicide.
Lack of knowledge about any health problem, including depression, is dangerous because unhealthy and sometimes scary decisions are made based on stigma. It’s uncomfortable to pursue knowledge sometimes, but challenging old beliefs can save a life.
With regard to finding a cause for a friend’s, loved one’s, or our depression, we can grow impatient when what we think we see does not effectively explain all the symptoms. For example, have you ever said or heard someone say that a depressed person should snap out of it and stop feeling sorry for him or herself?
The most common denominator between all human suffering is depression. “Causes”, at least the ones we wish to measure and describe, are limitless. Truth is, depression doesn’t have one cause. If only! How simple it would be to cure! You’ve seen the contradictions: one man loses his job and becomes dysfunctional while another man in the same predicament remains hopeful; one mother constantly worries over her children, and a second does not; a teenager suffers a romantic break-up and has suicidal thoughts although a peer endures a broken heart without seeming to miss a beat.
Beyond Blue*, an organization devoted to studying the issue of depression, explains on its website what can cause depression. “Research suggests that continuing difficulties – long-term unemployment, living in an abusive or uncaring relationship, long-term isolation or loneliness, prolonged exposure to stress at work – are more likely to cause depression than recent life stresses. However, recent events (such as losing your job) or a combination of events can ‘trigger’ depression if you’re already at risk because of past bad experiences or personal factors.”
Depression is not a “simple” anything. Depression does not begin and end with a chemical imbalance. Beyond Blue continues to explain just how complicated depression is. “Factors such as genetic vulnerability, severe life stressors, substances you may take (some medications, drugs, and alcohol) and medical conditions can affect the way your brain regulates your moods.”
Biological vulnerability to depression is similar to an undiagnosed heart condition. Physical activities that healthy people do, the one with the heart condition may also do until those same activities trigger the illness. Similarly, depression can be triggered by a major move, parents’ divorce, isolation, lack of expected success, or any other stress-inducing issue.
Symptoms of depression are often confused with causes. For example, increased eating or lack of sleep can be symptoms of depression yet we want to say weight gain and exhaustion brought it on. Social withdrawal is common among those suffering from depression, so how easy it is to assume such a person only needs to go out for a while to feel better.
We might slow our recovery process and aggravate our symptoms by using ineffective coping mechanisms. For example, my way of coping as a child was to keep an emotional distance. That was ok; it served to protect me for some time. However as an adult, that same method harms my friendships and serves to keep me lonely, a trigger to depression.
At any point, a less knowledgeable observer could have said to me, “Just open up and trust people.” That would not have made sense because I did not know what trust or open meant, how to do either, or if they were safe.
It does not seem plausible that millions worldwide who struggle with depression are choosing to not feel good. If you think about it, does it make sense that caring mothers and fathers would be wake up one day and decide they no longer want to enjoy their children? Will we see the teenagers, the ones we so easily accuse of being all about entertainment and instant gratification, as suspects of selfishness because they suffer from the life-draining pain of depression?
No, depression cannot be simply written-off as stubbornness of will, self-centeredness, or even spiritual weakness. It is complex, and worthy of far more study than a broad-brush sweeping stigma that encourages people to blame themselves for their struggle.
Just as depression has no one specific cause, it also has no guaranteed cure. The good news is it is highly treatable and manageable. Treatment has given me effective tools for coping with stress and disappointment. Both medication and talk therapy combined is the most common means of regaining mental health.
Next, this blog will attend to the question, “What causes suicide?”
Comments are always welcome (see tab below). NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.
If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.