World Mental Health Day is October 10th. Obviously this post is late for that, but is published with the intent of bringing awareness to mental health issues.
Depression is something that you really don’t fully understand unless you have been through it yourself. Even observing it in a close friend or loved one still doesn’t give you a full appreciation for the condition in my opinion. So since I have had to deal with my share of depression over the past couple of years, and since I’m starting to feel better finally, I’ve decided to share my perspective on it.
To begin I want to distinguish and define what I am referring to with the term depression. What I’m describing here is not a synonym for the sin of acedia. While both of them have many of the same physical signs: apathy, laziness, despair, dejection, sleepiness, lack of motivation and desire, etc the causes are different. Acedia is a spiritual disease which affects behavior. Essentially acedia is Hell on the installment plan; that is, a person has decided to no longer follow God [for some reason] and by doing so is gradually rejecting God and gradually progressing towards Hell. Depression, as I’m referring to it here is a physical condition which affects behavior. It refers to a chemical imbalance in the body which affects the overall life of a person.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I think there is a definite spiritual dimension to depression. There are times when I am angry at God and think He has just abandoned me and left me to an awful life. There are periods when I don’t bother doing any sort of personal spiritual devotion or practice and I feel like I am wasting my time on Sunday mornings. There has been real damage done to me spiritually while going through this, and I suspect it will take me quite a while to repair it and get things back on track.
However, I want to be sure that I distinguish between the two because I think Christians have a tendency to spiritualize everything and I want to make it clear that what I am talking about has a physical cause, not a spiritual one. I recognize that there is a spiritual dimension to it, but I am not talking about a spiritual disease. Depression as I define it is not something you can just pray your way out of or try harder and be cured from. Depression as I define it is something where you are basically helpless until you get yourself physically back to health.
Causes and Symptoms
Depression has a myriad of causes and identifying and treating the correct one can take some time. In my case it has really ended up being a hormone imbalance which has been further exacerbated over the past few years by the stress of graduate studies, not sleeping well, and not being able to get the rest I needed post-seminary. Basically it was depression caused by severe burnout. The hormone imbalance itself is quite treatable and since having resumed Clomid finally I feel much better physically (don’t get me started on how terrible my experience with the healthcare system in Sarasota was). The rest and sleeping well has been harder to come by, but since putting out the fires that suddenly popped up when I got back and actually treating my hormone issues I have finally started to sleep better and I am finally getting rest.
The main symptom I noticed during my depression was that my mental acuity was gone. Everything I did took longer and was far more difficult than normal. I could stare for 30 minutes at my computer writing a paper and not type a single thing and have no idea where the time went. My thoughts never moved from my brain to my fingers. This is a big problem when you’re doing graduate level work; you need to be at 100% mentally to do this level of work.
There were other significant symptoms as well: lack of energy, no motivation, no desire, no pleasure in previously enjoyed activities. I actually tried to avoid people as much as possible so that I wouldn’t have to talk to them and interact with them. I didn’t want to do anything because nothing was fun or enjoyable and I knew it would just be a waste of time for me.
Supporting Yourself While Depressed
Over the course of my experiences with depression I’ve discovered several things that were helpful in dealing with the symptoms. This is of course just my list based on my personal experience and not a substitute for professional medical advice. There, you have a disclaimer.
Identify the cause. I think this is the most important step because it can help understand and make sense of what is happening to you. For me I knew that I had been pushing myself way too hard and that several things did work out the way that I expected to them to. Add this all up and it is a ton of stress to deal with. I also knew that my testosterone was off because I went to a doctor and had it tested. Overall I’ve found that knowing my life was very stressful in seminary (especially the final 2-3 years) along with being able to point to a biologically identifiable marker such as imbalanced hormones really took a lot of the unknown out of it for me. As a result my depression wasn’t some mysterious thing that came out of the blue, but something with identifiable and correctable causes. I think that knowing this really brought me a lot of peace about the situation.
See a doctor and a therapist. You need help to get through depression. A doctor can provide the help you need physically and prescribe the correct medication to get you feeling better. A therapist can help you work through all the emotions and feelings you are experiencing. You really need this combination of care and not just one or the other. Depression might be physical in origin, but it affects you emotionally and spiritually also, so you need to make sure you take care of yourself in all of these areas.
Eat and supplement correctly. This is something that I think might not get enough attention when it comes to treating depression. To be sure I don’t think you can cure depression with a healthy diet and supplements alone, but I do think they can be a tremendous help. You can exercise your Google muscles and find out what a healthy diet is if you don’t know, so I won’t get into that here. What I will get into here though are the supplements that I found to helpful during my bouts with depression:
- Probiotics. I found the Garden of Life brand worked the best for me, but RenewLife worked pretty well also. I started taking them because I noticed my bowel movements were, shall we say, unpleasant and runny. I also felt like I hadn’t eaten even though I was eating regularly. I took this in the morning before breakfast and then had a Greek yogurt for lunch which had more probiotics in it. I’ve been able to drop the supplement since starting Clomid, but I still eat the Greek yogurt for lunch.
- Creatine. This is primarily used by athletes, but I found it was helpful during depression also. One of the problems I had was feeling physically weak, and creatine basically is supposed to make you stronger (that’s the overly simplified version anyway), so I figured I would try it to see if it would work. It did. From my understanding it is actually a pretty safe supplement and can be used for several months at least. It might not work for you, but it is worth a shot I think. Since starting Clomid though I’ve been able to stop taking this as well.
- Multivitamin, B-Complex, Fish Oil. I took all these to make sure that I was getting all the nutrients I needed and to help with stress. Nothing special about these, but make sure you are getting quality versions of them. I found Nature Made vitamins work pretty well personally.
- Magnesium. I’ve found Magnesium to be helpful with energy. Even though I generally eat foods that have magnesium in them I found a supplement in addition to them to be helpful. There has been some speculation that there is a link between magnesium deficiency and depression, so I decided to try it and see if it would work for me. It did. I took it at lunch separate from my multi, B-complex, and fish oil supplements because calcium can apparently interfere with its absorption.
I found these supplements helped tremendously during my depression. They didn’t make me feel “normal” or anything, but they at least made me functional so that I could get out of the house and do at least a few things. It really took Clomid for me to start feeling better and closer to normal. I still take the multivitamin, b-complex, fish oil, and magnesium supplements though because I do weightlifting 4x a week find them to be beneficial while expending so much energy.
Treat yo’ self. This is last on my list, but I think it is the most important. When you are dealing with depression you need to take care of yourself first and not worry about others. So do what makes you happy. I like video games, so I played a lot of video games. Other people might like painting, or walking, or photography, or any number of other things. I found that the way to counter all the negative thoughts and feelings I was having was to have fun so I could start having happy and positive thoughts and feelings. It didn’t happen overnight, and it hasn’t eliminated all the negative thoughts, but at least now the good and pleasant thoughts are outweighing the negative thoughts.
Supporting Someone Who is Depressed
Depression is not only hard on the person experiencing it, but also on those who are close to them. Here is one list of things to do. And here is another. Here is mine:
Recognize that they can’t just ‘get over it’ or ‘snap out of it.’ The tough-love approach will not work. Depression is not simply a mental state. It is a mental state caused by a chemical imbalance. It requires medication and professional medical care. Exercise might help a little, it did for me, but it didn’t cure my depression. There is nothing a depressed person can do about their state and trying to ‘motivate’ them out of it will only be harmful.
Recognize that what you are seeing is not who that person really is. When you are depressed you think all sorts of crazy things about all sorts of people and situations that are most likely highly inaccurate. In my experience I found that I was unable to view a situation accurately from a wholistic perspective, but instead generally misinterpreted people’s body language, words, and actions to mean that they didn’t like me. I wanted to think otherwise, but I just wasn’t capable. Little things that would ordinarily go unnoticed by me, or at least not bother me, really got under my skin and irritated me.
Learn about depression and the signs of suicide. The more you understand about depression and its effects the better the position you are in to be able to empathize with someone who is dealing with it. I was never suicidal in my depression, but I certainly understand why some do arrive at that place; you are just so absolutely miserable that you do not want to live.
Try small gestures. Depression isn’t just a lack of motivation or desire for career or life ambitions, it’s a lack of desire to do anything, including basic hygiene, cooking, cleaning, etc. A small gesture such as a meal, or cleaning their rooms, or even a haircut could go a long way and tell that person that they are still loved and not forgotten about.
Be patient. It takes time to get out of depression and it takes time to heal from the effects. I have found that even though the feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness are gone the experience and thoughts surrounding them still remain floating around in my heading just waiting to be triggered by some event and come flooding back in. So just be patient with them and let them take their time.
End the Stigma
For some reason there seems to be some sort of stigma surrounding depression and discussing it, and this needs to end. Essentially depression is due to an organ malfunction, and that organ is your brain. There is no stigma surrounding heart failure, or liver failure, or kidney failure, but for some reason when your brain is malfunctioning no one wants to talk about it or knows what to do about it. So hopefully this post will contribute in some small way to ending this stigma and educating people about depression.