When I think about depression, the image that comes to mind is that of the Addams Family house in the cartoon series, where a dark cloud is constantly over their home – even though everywhere else around them is sunny and bright.
When depression creeps up on you, you are aware of the bright day and the colours around you, only they seem to be covered by a grey filter that dims even the brightest light.
When this dark cloud hangs over you, your brain is caught in a fog that you just can’t shake off. Getting out of bed in the morning seems almost too hard, and you can’t possibly fathom that you’ll ever get the energy needed to get to the shower let alone get through the day.
Depression saps the joy of living out of you. Your mind fires constant negative thoughts at you, and somehow, they all ring so true! Thoughts beginning with “never” or “always” become your constant companions, feelings of despair and hopelessness are your best friends, and in general you just feel like a zombie wandering aimlessly through life without purpose or joy, guarded by a Dementor that you can’t get rid of.
What causes the dark cloud of depression?
Depression can be triggered by a number of factors. It does not have a specific onset and can appear at any time in life. Risk factors include:
- Genetic factors (eg a parent with depression).
- A troubled past.
- A traumatic event can also lead to a depressive episode, which, if left untreated can develop into chronic depression over time.
- Unprocessed grief after the loss of a loved one. The big difference between the sadness felt on such occasions is that in grief, the predominant emotion is emptiness and loss, while in Major Depressive Disorder it is the inability to anticipate happiness (DSM-V).
- In the first year after the birth of a baby (postnatal depression).
- Chronic high levels of stress, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
Common signs of depression
Although the experience of depression is different for everyone, it commonly includes the following:
- Impaired ability to think and reason.
- Low mood almost every day and nearly all day.
- Withdrawal from social situations.
- Irritability and outbursts of anger.
- Lack of enjoyment of things that previously had been enjoyable.
- Lack of energy.
- Disinterest in personal hygiene or the upkeep of the house.
- Drop in libido.
- Decreased appetite and/or weight loss.
- Sleep disturbance: insomnia or hypersomnia.
- Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, of not being understood, of loneliness, of being “empty”.
- Recurrent suicidal ideation.
Symptoms of depression in children
In children, depression can manifest in various ways such as:
- Frequent episodes of anger.
- Very low tolerance to frustration.
- A permanent state of irritability, and angry mood between outbursts.
- Difficulty maintaining friendships due to their low resilience and anger.
- Inability to enjoy activities that are typically enjoyed by children.
Depression is hard on everybody “touched” by it: the person living with it and those around them. It can be difficult caring for someone who is depressed, especially if it has been a long term companion.
Getting over depression?
First of all, you can’t just “get over it” or “snap out of it”. Many people, in their desire to be helpful, point out all the reasons why a person should not be depressed, and all the reasons they should be happy or grateful. However it does not work this way!
No one chooses to be depressed, so they can’t just choose to get over it.
The person with depression is fully aware of all the reasons to be grateful – and while they are grateful that their kids are healthy and that they have a job and a roof over their heads – that does not make their depression just go away.
In fact, pointing out why someone should not feel the way they feel is counterproductive and damaging. It invalidates their experience and it makes them feel guilty and inadequate for not being able to “snap out of it”, which, in turn will only make things worse.
Secondly, while still aware that there are things in life that are good and worthwhile, to the depressed person it does not feel this way. The positives pale in comparison to the negatives, their importance is diminished, and the negative thoughts are all encompassing. Which is why, if depressed, your own thoughts may not be the best dialogue partner, as they don’t present the accurate reality, but rather reality as seen through a grey cloud, and through distorted patterns of thinking.
So, what can be done if you suspect you or your child has depression?
The first step is to talk to your GP, who will ask a set of questions and likely do some testing in order to arrive at a diagnosis.
Treatment for Depression
Research has returned an immense body of evidence that depression can be treated successfully using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This kind of therapy acknowledges the connection between our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and works on identifying and challenging unhelpful patterns of thinking, and replacing them with more realistic ones. Not necessarily positive ones, but realistic. So if your GP suspects you have depression, they may suggest psychotherapy and give you a referral to see a Psychologist.
There are times however when depression does not respond to psychotherapy alone, in which case antidepressants in addition to therapy may be indicated.
It is important to note that depression may appear as a component of other disorders such as Bipolar Disorder (Manic-Depressive Disorder), when depressive episodes alternate with manic episodes. In this case the GP may recommend mood stabilisers.
How to Help Somebody with Depression
It is natural to want to help somebody with depression, but what are the best ways for you to give them support?
- Engage them in activities they once enjoyed, even if they don’t feel like it – nothing really appeals to a person suffering from depression, except maybe to lie in bed all day!
- Encourage them to seek help, and support them throughout their journey to recovery.
- Take a load off their shoulders by helping with household chores, kids, etc.
- Assure them that they are loved, important and valuable to you and their family.
- Remind them that they are not their condition, and it is not their fault for being depressed. It can happen to anyone, and it is not a sign of weakness or failure.
Be patient and keep in mind that there is hope. With help, that dark cloud of depression can be dissolved!
Author: Alexandra Ellermann, M Psych (Clin), AMAPS.
Brisbane Psychologist Alexandra Ellermann has extensive experience in working with children, adolescents, adults and families with a range of challenges, including depression, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, intellectual disability and developmental delays, and trauma and abuse.
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