“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I am completely aware that today’s quote is not particularly inspirational. It’s not very uplifting. It’s not even a particularly exciting image to look at. It is, however, part of a much larger conversation that needs to continue.
Let me state very clearly, for those of you who know of my own struggles with depression: I am actually, genuinely, feeling well.
I am, however, saddened by the death of Charlotte Dawson, and I believe I need to add my thoughts to the discussion around depression and mental health in any way I can, especially while it’s so prominent in the media at the moment. (Note: I am also saddened by the many people who take their own lives due to depression each year who aren’t celebrities, and who don’t make it into the media.)
During high school, I knew two boys my own age who took their own life. A close friend of one of my sisters-in-law recently committed suicide due to chronic depression. (She appeared on the “Beauty and the Geek” TV show in recent years.) Even my own sister has been very depressed recently and confided that she’d had thoughts of harming herself.
This is not OK. At. All.
Support should be available to these people before it becomes a critical issue. We need to shift the stigma around mental illness so that we all are aware of it, we can talk about it freely, and we regularly reach out to people we love who look like they’re doing it tough.
There is a huge stigma about depression and mental illness – that it’s not real, that it’s not serious, that it’s something to be ashamed of. I hid my feelings for months from my own wife – someone I keep nothing from – because I didn’t feel it was worth talking about, or that it wasn’t something I felt comfortable admitting.
My little sister told me she felt “ashamed” to speak about depression, and that she felt she didn’t have the support of our parents, who were telling her to simply suck it up and get on with things.
By removing the stigma around mental illness, we have the opportunity to encourage these conversations, and embrace them with compassion, love and empathy, and free of judgement.
Mental illness is insidious.
It takes our thoughts and turns them against us. It can make us believe that there is no future worth living for, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Depression is not just “feeling sad” – it is the sense that things will never get better, that there is no happiness to look forward to, and that no matter what you do, nothing will make a difference. It comes as no surprise to me, that depression is the leading cause of suicide.
When we feel like this, we are desperate for the people we love to simply understand us, accept us, and love us. We need them to show us that there is something worth living for, simply by showing their own support and love. When this love and support isn’t forthcoming, people turn to the only other way out.
I recently watched this TED talk about this very topic. Note: It is a difficult video to watch, because of how raw and powerful the descriptions are. The speaker – Andrew Solomon – is a writer, and chooses his words masterfully and with surgical precision. As such, the message of this talk is powerful and gut-wrenching – but it is important to watch if you, or someone you know, suffers from depression.
Louise L. Hay is an amazing woman who has healed herself of cancer without surgery or medication, and whose body of work is largely based around our innate ability to heal ourselves of anything. In her work, she refers to depression in terms of “Anger you feel you do not have a right to have. Hopelessness.” I completely agree with this definition based on my own personal experience.
And here’s the kicker:
Mental illness is life-threatening, like cancer.
The root cause of the illness is not as obvious as cancer; a depressed person doesn’t have a malignant group of cells growing out of control, and gradually strangling your body’s ability to function. Depression won’t show up on an x-ray, an MRI or a CT scan. A depressed person, however, is still afflicted physically, as well as mentally.
It’s harder for other people to understand and empathise with. If I walked into the room with a broken arm, immediately you would understand that I was in physical pain, wouldn’t be able to do things for myself, and would probably need help until I got better.
If I walked into the room with depression, I’d look perfectly healthy on the outside, with the possible exception that I wouldn’t be full of energy, and I might look a bit sad or withdrawn. Your reaction might vary from “I wonder if he’s OK” to “I wish he’d stop being such a sad sack and cheer up a bit”.
I would still feel physically ill, flat, lacking energy, and in turmoil. My stomach would be in knots, I would have headaches and/or lethargy, and I would be – in extreme cases – unable to even walk into the room in the first place.
The illness has physical manifestations, so strictly isn’t just a mental illness. It’s only called that because it mostly starts with the mind.
Depression can be treated successfully.
I am living proof. Many others are too, including Andrew Solomon, and Stephen Fry. I believe depression is something that gets “managed”, rather than “cured”. If we have a pre-disposition to be a depressed person, it is similar to being an alcoholic. It is always there in the background, waiting to return, but needs constant management to remove or eliminate the triggers, so it can be effectively treated.
It isn’t easy, and it isn’t fast, but it is possible. It needs lots of love, lots of support and understanding, and lots of kindness – both from others, and from ourselves.
There are a whole range of treatments, including things such as more sleep, good exercise, healthier diet, meditation, self-love practices, and drugs/medication. There are also an enormous range of online resources to dig into, including these two Australian depression and mental heath organisations:
Offline, there are a few ways to be part of a bigger community of people who have experienced depression, and who are talking about it. One of these is the One Wave crew. I regularly go to Bondi for something called “Fluro Friday” where a whole bunch of people get dressed up in crazy outfits and go surfing together. It’s all about fun, laughter, and community, with the common bond that everyone either has experienced mental illness personally, or cares about someone who has mental illness.
Start talking about it today.
Today’s post is about continuing the conversation about depression and mental health. The more we talk about it, the more we can save lives and prevent suicides, and the more we can get closer to understanding why depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. (World Health Organisation report on depression.)
If you have depression, talk about it. Email me, chat with your best friends, tell your parents. Point them at some of the resources I’ve linked in this article, so they can better understand it. Don’t be ashamed or afraid – people who love you will do their best to understand. People who understand you will support you.
And being well supported by people who love you is one of the key parts of successful treatment.
Have a brilliant sunny day, and remember that it’s OK to be you, just as you are. And remember that there is PLENTY worth living for.
NOTE: If you are feeling depressed, or thinking about harming yourself, please reach out. Contact the trained counsellors at any one of these organisations: