I've been acutely aware recently of the shorter days, and how for some the dwindling light can trigger a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder or 'SAD'. This thought has sparked others: First, depression the mental illness is not related to feeling sad; and second, our lives all include people with depression who can benefit from our learning about it.
At some point we've all felt depressed; it's part of the human experience. Losses from failing a test to losing a loved one bring feelings of grief and sadness that we call depression. That's the feeling.
People with the disease depression occasionally feel depressed, but many don't. The disease is different than the feeling.
So what does depression feel like? It varies. For me, I get up one day feeling sick, unable to concentrate, and too exhausted to even check the mail. It can take days to figure out if it's a virus or depression. Other people either can't sleep or sleep way too much, and may be overwhelmed by intense feelings of shame, worthlessness, anxiety or rage. Memory loss and difficulty concentrating are common, as are weakness and fatigue. Symptoms can last from months to years.
Depression is biologically based, the result of imbalances in neurotransmitters in the brain. In fact, it's measurable: Imaging technology shows diminished activity in the depressed brain, and people with depression score lower on both IQ and motor skills tests than when they are symptom- free. Recently it's been shown that people with chronic severe depression have marked and permanent changes in the structure of their brains.
Without question, there are people right now in all our lives suffering from depression. At some point, a person close to us will share that they have the illness. How can we be supportive?
The first thing is to not run away. This takes courage. Our own insecurities are often triggered by others' depressive symptoms. Here's a tip: it's not catchy. And showing up consistently in a depressed a person's life means a lot to them.
Here's another tip: They have lessons to teach you. The change of pace and the exercise of courage required to stand with a depressed friend will put you on the road less traveled; that alone is a reward. Other gifts may await: deeper compassion, maybe, or a different perspective on life.
Here are some further thoughts:
Medication is the most important treatment for severe depression, but it's rare to find quick relief. It can take years to find the right drug or combination of drugs. Simply acknowledging this can help.
Encourage your friend to seek healing from many modalities: Talk therapy, acupuncture, yoga and everything in between are worth exploring. Seldom does one thing alone relieve symptoms.
Depressed people generally feel tremendous shame at being disabled when they don't necessarily look it, so they may decline casual offers of help. Be aware that if their illness is prolonged, they probably need help with everything from cleaning to stacking firewood, even getting the mail. If they're too ill to work, they may need food or other basics.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed, but remember you don't have to fix everything. In fact, if you can't fix anything that's OK. The key to ministering to a depressed person, whether acquaintance or soul mate, is to understand what depression is and to stand with them in its midst.
There's a small chance you'll be told to buzz off; extreme irritability and irrational thinking are also symptoms of depression. If you're unsure what to do, talk to a professional. You might need to walk away. If nothing else, send out a prayer. It helps.
Depression stinks. But it's not about sadness: It's a neurological disorder that destroys lives. Those who have it don't want your pity, but your understanding of their illness is valuable, and your solidarity with their humanity is priceless.
Good wishes to you all in this season.