It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
At least that’s what the marketing is telling you. I’m not going to go all bah-humbug on you, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that not all people find the November-December holiday season as happy and merry as songs and nostalgic movies lead us to believe. After all, ‘tis the season for depression.
While many people feel sad, some people feel extremely sad for long periods of time. Depression is not just something we feel when we want to be dramatic. Depression, like other psychological disorders, is diagnosed by a doctor after a full physical examination rules out any physical causes of depressive symptoms. From the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), some signs and symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Overeating, or appetite loss
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
Depression is a serious illness that often requires intervention, either in the form of behavioral, cognitive, or pharmacological treatment. Dr. Eric Kandel, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on describing the neural circuitry underlying signal transduction in the aplysia, recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times discussing the effectiveness of both psychotherapy and pharmacological interventions for depression. Be sure to read Kandel’s take on it and the original research article on it by Dr. Helen Mayberg and colleagues, but the upshot is that depending on your personal brain chemistry and wiring, treatments for depression that may work for you, might not work for everyone.
I am not a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. I cannot diagnose anything. But I can tell you what doesn’t work for people suffering from depression: telling them that they just need to get over it. We don’t tell people with diabetes to just give up sugar, we don’t tell people with broken legs to go out and try to walk, and we don’t tell those on a low-dose aspirin regimen that it’s all in the head. We should not tell people with a bona fide illness, like depression, to snap out of it.
Mental illness, including depression, is stigmatized in our society. In the words of one person who battled depression,
Despite the fact that I was fighting for my life, I did not want people to know it and the stigma and shame of depression was such that the friends and family on the short list who did know naturally wanted to keep matters close to the vest. It’s hard to imagine another reason for a hospitalization –whether for a burn, two broken legs, or for cancer treatment– that would produce such a conspiracy of confused silence.
We need to break the mold of silence. We need to speak out. And we need to offer support and comfort to those who may be a little more raw psychologically this season.
If the concept of depression is not something you’re familiar with, consider yourself lucky. According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 Americans report being depressed; according to the NIMH, many never seek help.
The internet is a great place to look for first-person accounts of this serious illness, and it sounds weird to say I have some favorites, but I do. Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, does a wonderful service blogging about her experience with depression (when she can), along with other hilarious things, including big metal chickens. And Allie, at Hyperbole and a Half, has a wonderful post, complete with cartoons explaining her journey with depression. (Disclaimer: I do not know either of these women, but I admire them both.)
So if you know someone who is battling depression (and odds are that you do), reach out and let them know you are there to support them. It can be as simple as letting them know you know that times are rough. It’s cheaper and more valuable than anything you can buy this holiday season.