A Note from Jenn on Depression
October 17th, 2018 – Notes From Jenn
Today, I will admit, is a heavier article than I generally share, but in light of the loss our culture has experienced over the past several months, I thought it was fitting to spend a little time with the realities of depression.
Here I am not discussing “the blues,” but diagnosed clinical depression. The “blues” is generally situational and usually doesn’t last very long. We ALL experience blues at one point or another. However, depression is different. Depression occurs when symptoms like hopelessness, irritability, or feelings of emptiness last longer than two weeks and affect daily functioning.
There can be many causes to depression-- biological or environmental, or a combination of the two. Past trauma, brain changes, life circumstances, genetics, and even other medical conditions can contribute to depression.
My anxiety and depression can flip on like a switch during seasons of high stress and when my cortisol levels are out of whack. This physically changes the brain and is out of my control without outside help. I’ve even personally learned the connection between thyroid and brain health and the gut-brain connection-- MANY things can cause our brains to become inflamed or out of sorts for a time. Depression and high anxiety can come and go just like a cold or seasonal flu, but that can be hard for some to understand.
“From the outside looking in it’s hard to understand. From the inside looking out, it’s hard to explain.”
Let’s make it clear, people don’t choose depression, just like they don’t choose cancer, or any other disease. Yet our society has set “brain disease” aside, filed it away on a shelf far from other illnesses. But we can’t do that. When we do that, we set a precedent that this disease is somehow less real than other diseases simply because we can’t detect it with a blood test. But did you know depression is actually detectable by a brain scan, and neurotransmitter imbalances can be detected through urine tests? I was actually able to see on paper how my serotonin levels and other brain chemicals were not working properly after testing. It was comforting to understand that how I was feeling was something biological, not something i created.
I remember trying to express to someone how my mind was caught in this loop of darkness and I couldn’t get out of it. Their advice: "Well, just quit thinking about it and think about something else” … Do they really think I hadn’t thought of that before? We have got to become more educated on mental illness, how the brain and it’s chemicals operate and how to respond properly to those who are suffering. Just like diabetes or heart disease, depression can have multiple causes such as biological, genetic, and environmental factors.
I’ve been there. Depression breeds irrationality, fear, hopelessness, and a desire to escape from one’s self and at the same time free those around you. Depression tells you that you are a burden, that nothing or no one can help you, and it screams for you to give up. It places you in a pit that’s just deep enough you can’t climb out on your own, yet you’re too exhausted and defeated by the lies to ask for a help, a tool, or a hand to get you out of the pit. It numbs you, makes you apathetic, and leaves you feeling isolated.
Depression casts a shadow of darkness over everything you see, hear, and feel, yet you recognize that it seems everyone else around you is still seeing in color. Robin Williams once said, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” Depressed people don’t generally walk around appearing depressed. They are doing their best to tuck everything away and not be an emotional or physical burden to others.
So what can we do?
For the person suffering - let me say that there is ALWAYS hope and you are loved. So far, I have experienced two fairly severe battles with anxiety and depression in my life, aside from generalized anxiety. Both times I had to fight against the lies my mind was feeding me just to keep going, and both times I was beyond grateful I did. There is always a reason to hang on, even if we can’t see it in the moment. And one of the biggest factors in my powering through - my friends and family that carried me along on the daily.
For the caregiver or friend: First off, give people permission to suffer from mental illness. I know this sounds strange, but we are so uneducated about mental illness that it makes us fearful of it and uncomfortable. All this does is breed shame, fear, and doubt in the person who is already struggling. What if we normalized it to the point that people felt comfortable asking for prayers at church; or it was just as common to have meal trains for people during periods of extreme depression or anxiety as it is for someone who just had a baby or who is going through chemo treatments.
Sometimes the simplest tasks are difficult during a season of depression or high anxiety. We need people who can lovingly show up and say, “today you’re taking a walk around the block with me, because I know you can do it.” Or “today we’re going to pull weeds together because the warmth of the sunshine will be good for your soul.” We need to be someone else’s normalcy and hope when they can’t get there on their own. And to do this means we need to be educated about how to care for our own and others mental health, which is exactly what we strive to do with our UShine programs.
We are called to community by God. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. And it’s not just when things are simple and we’ve got it all figured out. Sometimes helping others is hard and uncomfortable and unknown. But Jesus dealt with the ultimate amount of hard, and uncomfortable, and although knowing his fate, he laid Himself down anyway so we could experience grace, mercy, and love beyond measure. So let’s be ok with being uncomfortable in our families, our churches, our friend groups, and our schools so we can show grace, mercy, and love to the hurting around us.
I have been on both sides of the mental illness equation - I’ve been a caretaker and I’ve been the person that needed care. You can’t ask for what you don’t know you need; and you can’t muster up will power that doesn’t exist. I needed others to help me see what I couldn’t and encourage me to do what seemed at the time impossible (like eating, showering, or stepping outside - and no, I’m not kidding).
One of the best things I did while being on the caregiver side was to go to counseling. Yes, I went to counseling when someone else needed help so that I could be a well-informed, purposeful caregiver. My goal here is not to let the struggler “off the hook” - at some point I had to do what people told me to do, but the people who helped me heal were the people who were informed in how to help or who had been there themselves.
Caring for someone with mental illness can be tricky-- without the right approach, we can cause more damage, shame, and guilt on a person who is already mentally and emotionally fragile. But honestly, it’s not that hard. They need to be told it’s going to be ok, over and over again. They need to know that you believe them that what they are going through is a real disease / illness. They need you to sit with them, take a walk with them, fix them a meal.
It’s not hard stuff; it’s just uncomfortable stuff. So I encourage all of us to be more open to believing that mental illness is every bit as real as cancer, diabetes, or any other disease / illness, and to learn how to properly bring hope to someone struggling and accept them in their brokenness. When we foster hope, we foster love, and love conquers all.