Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Depression is an illness, and not a sign of weakness

My name’s Helena Fairfax.  I’m a British romance writer, and my first novel is called the The Silk Romance. At heart my novel is a sweet, uplifting love story, but like many romances it touches on some serious issues.
The following conversation takes place between my heroine, Sophie, and her father, who suffers from depression. 
“I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve given you, love.”
“Dad!...It wasn’t your fault.  You couldn’t help being ill.  It’s just one of those things.”

Cartoon by Beatrice the Biologist

Why does Sophie’s father feel the need to apologise for his illness?  Why is it that we find depression and mental health problems so difficult to talk about?  Clinical depression is a serious condition, so why do we find it something to be ashamed of, and why is it such a taboo subject, particularly for men?

For those who have never suffered from depression, it can be difficult to understand what people with this illness are going through.  For sufferers, it’s as though something outside your control has possession of your mind.  Everything that’s good in the world becomes useless: the future, your relationships with others, and most of all your own self.  In the same way that cancer attacks the body, your brain is taken over by your illness and your thoughts spiral out of control, through absolutely no fault of your own.

Here's another quote, this time from President Obama, who recently announced funding for the BRAIN project (an initiative to start mapping the complex circuitry of the brain):

“As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, study particles smaller than an atom but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

Depression is not a weakness.  It is a serious illness.  But because we still don’t understand how the brain works, in our society admitting to suffering from depression is seen as a sign of failure.  Would you tell a cancer sufferer to stop his cancerous cells from developing?  No, because it’s impossible.  And it’s just as hard to turn off depression.  A sufferer can’t just “snap out of it”.

As yet there is no known cure.  Anti-depressants work in some cases (but not all).  Counselling can help some sufferers (but not all).  What definitely DOESN’T help is when people are made to feel stigmatised for an illness that is no fault of their own.

In the UK I support a charity called CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably), which acts to help prevent suicide among young men, who are particularly at risk.  One of the factors that may put young men at more risk is the fact that they can feel ashamed admitting to a perceived weakness. Men are brought up to believe they should be strong in our society.  But if we can’t allow men and women to talk openly about this illness, how can we help them?
Photo courtesy of Rachel Clare/CALM
The above photo shows a graffiti campaign run by CALM, called Tom, Dick, Harry.  The campaign dominates London's Old Street, and it illustrates in a powerful way that every day three young men in the UK end their own lives.

Here are some further compelling statistics I discovered from CALM’s webpage:

·         Suicide accounted for the deaths of more young men in England & Wales in 2011 than road death, murder and HIV/AIDs combined.

·         In the UK, 4,552 men took their own lives in 2011.  

4,552. What does that figure mean to you?  An interesting statistic?  Something to glance at, read and move on?

One of those 4,552 men was my son.  He’s not a number.  There aren’t the words in any language to describe what he was to me.  There’s not a day, an hour or a minute that’s gone by since then that I haven’t thought of him.

Depression is a crippling and potentially fatal disease.  One day there will be a cure, but in the meantime, as long as men and women feel ashamed to speak of this illness, people will continue to suffer.

If you would like more information on this subject, I’ve listed below a few useful websites. charity The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)  Advice and personal experiences from depression sufferers  Advice on what works for depression  A personal view on the stigma felt by a depression sufferer.
If you have any questions or comments on the above, please let me know in the comments section.  If you would like to get in touch, I can be contacted through my blog at , or via my Facebook page , or by email at helena(dot)fairfax(at)gmail(dot)com


Wendy said...

Thanks for this informative article, Helena. Fiction does serve us well when it tackles the big issues.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Wendy. Yes, a lot of people are surprised by the range of major issues tackled by romance novels

Leona~Author said...

Just a week ago, a young friend of my granddaughter took his own life. None of his friends had any idea that he was depressed.

I wonder if the age we live in, where even a college degree doesn't guarantee a job, might add to feelings of hopelessness.

You've written s powerful and thought-provoking article, Helen. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Leona, I'm so sorry to hear about your grand-daughter's friend. We can never fully understand the reasons why someone has taken their own life, once they are gone. But statistics do show that suicide has increased since the start of the recession. I'm sure you are right about the growth in the sense of hopelessness.

Unknown said...

I talked about mania and the Christmas tree brain associated with the brain's hyperactivity and how this impacts creativity. A lot of creative people suffer from straight depression, so it, too, has an important component to play.

Depression is the flip side of the Christmas tree brain. The brain scans show blues and greens (no cool name that I've seen) of brain INactivity. it is amazing to see the same person's brain when they are manic, level and depressed.

I'm an existentialist. This means I believe there is no inherent meaning to life and man must create his own meaning or fall into what is termed the existential void. Depression puts us in this void. It strips away everything our brain superimposes on life to make it bearable. Creative endeavors are one way to deal with this. They help us make sense of the world.

The height of my depression was one day when I passed a sign on base advertising free mental screenings and counseling. I had spent the last few weeks so depressed, I was unable to care for my two children. Fortunately my neighbor took care of them. I spent most of the day crying. I knew I had a problem. When I passed that sign I thought "I have a problem, but I am beyond help. I have no hope of getting better."

Hope is created through brain activity. In the cool blues and greens of a depressed brain, you don't have hope. You don't have anything. You are exposed to the world and vulnerable without the defenses the brain concocts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment, Viola. You've given a good image of the sense of hopelessness during depression. I'm sorry you go through it. You raise a great point - I think people who've suffered from depression do question their lives more deeply than others, and the search to find some meaning to life is a positive thing, and can lead to creative endeavours.

Marsha said...

Sorry, just now checking this out, Helena. What a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing. Please accept my sincere condolences in the loss of your son. I have a good friend who went through that. There are really no words to comfort. But you model for the rest of us what does help in these situations. Take action. Spread the word.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment, Marsha. It's amazing how many people know of someone personally who has died by suicide. And yet publicly, it's not often spoken of. I hope you are right, and that it will help to spread the word about the potentially fatal consequences of depression.

PamelaTurner said...

Thanks for posting this, Helena. It's true that there's still a stigma against mental illness. It's difficult because we're told to get help, but when we do, we're ostracized for it. So I can understand why many people choose to suffer in silence. I suffered from severe depression for years. I have a friend who's lost many friends to suicide because they thought there was no way out.

Hopefully, your message has reached someone in their darkest hour, and he or she seeks help.

Jenna Storm said...

Thank you for posting about such a serious and sensitive subject. I'm so sorry you lost your son to depression. I can't imagine how difficult it is for you to share so much with us.

Your post comes at a time when I'm trying to understand depression and how it takes over the mind. My 15 yr old daughter recently (three weeks ago) revealed how severely depressed she is. I've had her begin an anti-depressant, counseling and keeping her by my side.

Your post and links are very helpful.

It's so hard for me to understand how she feels when I see her as a beautiful, intelligent young woman (15yrs old) who has so much to look forward to and life to experience. I hope with the help I'm getting her, removing some of her pressure (she will return to school after the summer) and keeping our communication open so she knows she can tell me anything that she'll find her happiness again.

I'll also look through the links you provided. Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Jenna, I'm so sorry you and your daughter are having to go through this time. Depression is a terrible illness, as terrible for the sufferers as for the people who care deeply for them.
I wish I knew the answer as to how to cope. All I can say is that it may give your daughter some comfort to know that her present feelings are due to an illlness which many people suffer from. The feelings of hopelessness she is experiencing will fade with time, and her life will return to normal. She will find hope again.
I wish you both all the strength in the world

Jenna Storm said...

Thank you Helena. I'm glad you said that. I keep telling her that this is just a small bump and she will feel better and school will resume in the fall. I will remind her that many people suffer from depression and with the help and medicine she's getting she'll get back to herself.

Again, thank you and take care of yourself.