Depression effects 15 million adults and 1.9 million children in the US yearly. It is one of the most common mental health concerns that people seek help for. I've been in therapeutic relationships with many individuals who suffer from depression and I've noticed that there is a consistent theme in how they describe their experience. In the last few weeks, I've asked them; children, adolescents, and adults to describe what depression feels like
Here's what they had to say:
"I feel like I have a weight around my neck constantly weighing me down."
"People think that I'm mean or cold. Really, I'm just unhappy. Unable to enjoy their company. Despite desperately wanting to be able to."
"Like I can't smile."
"I'm sad. Everyday."
"I don't even want to hang out with my friends anymore."
"I just want to sleep forever."
"Stuck in the mud. I'm fighting to get out. But I'm just stuck. It is so damn frustrating."
"It effects my ability to be a mom. Ultimately, I'm fighting everyday just to get up to put my kid on the bus."
"Concentration is not existent. I literally can't even do my work in school."
"Who wants to live like this? Not me."
"My dad doesn't believe me. He thinks I'm making it up. Just because he can't see it."
Can You Imagine?
These powerful descriptions of true human suffering strike me at the core. As my clients describe to me what they are going through, I find myself imaging what it must be like to be them. To feel as if your body and your will are disconnected. Unfortunately, many people tell me that they feel misunderstood. In reality, they feel that way because they are!
Society as a whole has a very black and white approach as it relates to mental health. The abstract nature of depression means that it is often left to the observer's own interpretation what that person is experiencing.
People who suffer from depression are called lazy. Told that they aren't trying hard enough to overcome their struggles. Their family members think they are behaving this way for attention. Some are even old that they are using their suffering as an excuse.
Because we cannot see depression, it is difficult to conceptualize.
As is the case with abstract art, viewers get to decide what it is that they are seeing.
Science has been somewhat helpful in destigmatizing depression and helping us to conceptualize it. It has become one of the more "accepted" mental illnesses. Partly because of it's prevalence in the population. Partly because of the emergence of anti-depressants and the fact that in the US you can market psychopharmecuticals directly to the public. If you see an ad for something enough times it becomes normalized-for better or worse.
Science Only Has Some of the Answers
Millions of people have benefited greatly as a result of the research that has revealed that an imbalance in brain chemicals often plays a role in a person's experience of depression. However, given the fact that medications don't cure everyone, there must be more to the story.
This article sheds light of what purpose depression could actually serve to a human. It also talks about why it may not need to be considered a "disorder" or a "problem". I was elated to see this circulating on my Facebook timeline some years ago.
As a therapist, I am constantly challenging my clients to explore the real purpose that their struggles have in their lives. This exploration in and of itself has the potential to be extremely therapeutic. Often times, I have found that people experience a dramatic reduction in depressive symptoms when they fully commit to this exploration. When they ask themselves; "What can I learn from this?"
So What is Depression Trying To Tell Us?
First and foremost, human beings were built to survive. So, holding this perspective can be extremely helpful as we try to make sense of what Depression is. From an evolutionary stand point, we must consider that early human beings were likely fighting for their lives consistently.
As we developed greater capacities like the ability to reason, create language, invent things, etc. etc. there was likely a period of growing pains. A period of time when all of these new emerging abilities caused internal conflict. The type of internal conflict that had the potential to get you killed for lack of mental clarity. Depression during this time would be extremely helpful!
The person experiencing it would sit themselves somewhere in a cave and think. Hard. In an attempt to figure out whatever it was that was getting in the way of their survival. And to make plans. It would allow for the consolidation of new information and capabilities. Furthermore it would provide space for the integration of these new skills and capabilities into life as they new it.
Depression forces the person experiencing it to slow down. Slowing down could also keep information, and stimuli from the world at bay. Thereby further allowing for the time required to get the mind back in a space capable of surviving again.
Implications for Differing Perspectives and Perceptions of Depression
This explanation for Depression leads us in a direction that could help to change societies perception of this particular human experience. Changing societies perception would then likely change the human experience of depression.
What if we lived in a world, where people who were depressed had the luxury of taking some time to work through it? Whatever time they needed, to think things through and come up with a solution that worked for them?
Currently there are limited options for someone who needs that time (we're looking at you, employers). Here at Pinnacle we believe that through the elimination of stigma associated with mental health, as well as through education we can make the cultural shift necessary to care for those members of our society who are grappling with depression.
Pinnacle Co-Founder Dahyana P. Schlosser, M.Ed. is a Child and Family Therapist and tireless advocate for Children's Mental Health. Her passion for helping others serves at the core of her perspective on problems and innovative solutions.