“I am no longer ashamed, but still find depression difficult to speak about because the experience is so unspeakable. Yet Henri Nouwen’s spirit continues to call me and many others to more openness and vulnerability, more shared humanity and mutual healing, even- and perhaps especially- when the subject is so difficult that words seem to fail.” Parker Palmer- Let Your Life Speak
Depression is a subject that is difficult for me because it is my own struggle. As a counselor, my personal diagnosis is not something that usual comes into the counseling room. However, I hope that my journey with depression will be eye opening for those that are struggling, and those with loved one’s struggling. I personally love working with those that are experiencing depression, because with these clients I can often relate on a deeper level.
In 2011 I was diagnosed with Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD). To be diagnosed with PDD one must experience a “depressed mood for most of the day, for more days than not, as indicated by either subjective account or observation by others, for at least two years” (DSM V). In addition, one must experience two of the following “poor appetite or overeating, insomnia or hypersomnia, low energy or fatigue, low self-esteem, poor concentration or difficulty making decisions, feelings of hopelessness” (DSM V). When I was diagnosed with PDD I was experiencing five of the above.
I had a poor appetite, I could not sleep through the night and had difficulty falling asleep, I experienced low energy and fatigue, I did not have a healthy self-esteem, and I was hopeless. This hopelessness could lead me to suicidal thoughts and feelings of worthlessness. I did not seek help until I lived with these negative behaviors for 10 years. Ten years of feeling like I lived in a bottomless pit.
My first reaction when diagnosed was relief. I was relieved to hear that not everyone lived day to day in this darkness, this fog, or cloud.
I grew up in an enviroment where mental health was not discussed. The message I received often was do not feel unless it is a “good” emotion, and if you are feeling negative or down this is not to be expressed. Emotional pain was confusing and often painful for those I lived with. Other messages I received from friends and peers were “you can do anything as long as you set your mind to it”, “if you pray enough your sadness will go away”, “if your faith was only stronger…” etc. These messages were not only discouraging, but they lead me towards a low self-esteem, and questioning if I would ever be good enough.
Depression often comes in many different forms. Meaning it can be a different experience for each person. “Some are primarily genetic or bio-chemical and will respond only to drugs; some are primarily situational and will respond only to inner work that leads to self-knowledge, choices, and change; some lie in between” (Palmer, 2000, pp 57-58).
When befriending someone with depression, what we need is someone to sit with us in our pain. Not try to fix it. We often need someone to listen and emphasize. To learn more about what true empathy is I strongly recommend watching this video by Brene Brown https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw .
We need to know we are not alone in our pain. We need to know we have others that can meet us where we are and truly connect with us. Telling someone that is depressed to simply have more faith, or “things could be worse” or “why don’t you believe that God wants you to have joy” is not helpful. These statements usual lead to more shame, which feeds into the lie that there is no hope.
If your loved one or friend is suffering with depression it is helpful to recognize that this is an issue we cannot control, and if we could we would choose to be happy and live a normal life. Depression should be treated as a disease, not as something that is controllable by the person suffering. According to Harvard health professionals depression is a complicated disease.
Depression was once believed to be caused mostly by a lack of certain brain chemicals, but today it is believed to be more convoluted. Depression is affected by “nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits” (https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression). In other words, it is complex and not something that an individual could control if they tried.
After your loved one or friend is empathized with and has felt accepted in their pain, suggest them to see a mental health professional. Such as a counselor or psychologist. For me this has been essential. I have seen mental health professionals off and on ever since I was diagnosed.
My other suggestion is encouraging them to see a psychiatrist. As I stated above depression is not something that the individual can control. Depression should be treated as a disease and just like any other disease medical treatment is usually suggested. For example, would you ever suggest someone with cancer not to seek medical treatment, what about asthma, or the flu?
For those where it is not a biochemical issue, but more situational or for a season (such as someone experiencing grief) learn to be present with them and their pain. As Parker Palmer (2000) shares “One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery” (p. 63).
If you have someone close to you that is experiencing depression never try to fix them/it. Listen. Empathize. Encourage. If you are someone that is experiencing depression I encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional no matter how long you have been suffering. Be brave and courageous, seek help from professionals and peers.
Bess Moro MA, LPCC, NCC
Bess is a counselor, speaker, and teacher. Bess is passionate about others becoming their true selves and sitting with others in their process and pain. You can find her speaking at Where Grace Abounds, Denver Seminary, Girl Above and others on this subject and more.