Rory Fitzgerald offers a positive approach to depression in the family
Despite living on a rain-lashed island which was impoverished and unfree for most of its history, we Irish have generally been known as a cheerful bunch.
However, at this time of year, even the most cheerful of us can succumb to despondency. Experts have calculated that the third Monday of January is officially the most depressing day of the year. The cheer of Christmas is gone, and we are trapped indoors, sorely lacking in sunshine and exercise.
Amid interminably wintry weather, spring seems a long way off and many of us will have already faltered in our new year’s resolutions.
We all go through periodic low periods, but what if unshakeable and debilitating feelings of misery last for weeks, months or even years?
It is estimated that as many as 400,000 Irish people — some 10 per cent of the population — are suffering from depression at any given time. A detailed rundown of the symptoms of depression is given in the Health Matters column opposite.
Because so many people live with depression, it is certain that almost all of us have loved ones, friends, neighbours or colleagues who suffer from depression.
Yet there remains a stigma around the subject of depression — perhaps because it comes under the scary heading of ‘mental illness’.
However, given that depression is so incredibly common, it should perhaps be categorised merely as ‘part of the human condition’.
In normalising it, people might be more comfortable asking for help. Loved ones too, might be more comfortable in keeping an eye out for signs of depression, and then raising the possibility of seeking treatment.
One of the difficult things about depression is that — unlike toothache, for example — it can be very difficult for the sufferer to diagnose it in themselves. The depression itself can make the sufferer blind to its existence — and can prevent people from taking active steps toward seeking help.
The good news about depression is that it is eminently treatable: it is estimated that about 80pc of patients with depression respond very well to the treatments available, which include everything from talking therapies to medication and exercise — or a combination of a number of treatments.
Once the sufferer is aware of their condition, and is under the care of a good GP, the future is almost certainly brighter for them and their families. The support and understanding of loved ones and family can greatly enhance recovery.
And yet a depressed person can be difficult to live with at times, so having an understanding of the condition can help avoid domestic disharmony.
An exasperated wife may ask why her husband has been sitting grumpily on the couch for months: why doesn’t he play golf anymore? Why doesn’t he want to chat with me and make jokes, like he used to?
She may, understandably, become angry or resentful of her husband’s changed behaviour. However, if he is diagnosed with depression, she will no doubt take a much more understanding stance and can help and encourage him in his recovery.
Lean On Me is a charity which hopes to help people suffering from depression to tell their family and friends. Research has found that three in four Irish people who had experienced depression said they withdrew from family and friends while depressed.
The same research also found that over 55pc of those affected by depression did not tell their friends or family at all. According to Lean On Me: ”The main reasons for not telling their family and friends about their depression, mentioned by 57pc, was because they didn’t want to burden them with their problems; more than one in four (29pc) didn’t know how to tell them, and a similar amount (28pc) said that they felt too scared, ashamed or overwhelmed. Almost one in five (18pc) thought they wouldn’t be understood and more than one in four (27pc) felt that their friends wouldn’t be able to help them.”
A tragic irony of depression is that just when people need the support of loved ones most, they are afraid or unable to ask for it.
The World Health Organisation says ”psychological support from family, friends, or health providers is powerfully protective” in depression.
Thankfully, these days, taboos are slowly being broken down — yet far too many still suffer in silence without telling even those closest to them.
Men are particularly vulnerable to seeing depression as a shameful sign of ‘weakness’ instead of an illness or a chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected.
Some try to smother their feelings with alcohol, which only makes matters worse. While depression can have many causes, it can be triggered by stressful life events such as losing a job or facing financial difficulties, which are much more common during a severe recession such as Ireland is now mired in.
Traditionally, ‘happiness surveys’ have found Irish people to be amongst the happiest in the world. However, this may be radically changing: according to a recent survey by the WIN-Gallup International global barometer, which surveyed almost 53,000 people in 58 countries, the Irish are now, in fact, amongst the unhappiest in the world.
The study calculates ‘net happiness’ by taking the percentage of people who consider themselves happy, and subtracting the percentage who consider themselves unhappy.
Some 45pc of Irish people said they were happy and 25pc said they were unhappy, leaving a net ‘net happiness’ rating of 20pc. Ireland’s ‘net happiness’ is therefore half that of the international average of 40pc, and well below the western European average of 56pc.
Indeed, Ireland is placed just above Iraq with 19pc. It is a troubling thought that one in four of the people you encounter on the street now feel unhappy.
In addition to its economic travails, Ireland is going through a shattering loss of trust in the Church and in politics. Every day, a barrage of negative news and commentary assails us across the airwaves.
A strong faith has been shown to protect against depression and Ireland is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of faith. Many factors are currently conspiring to increase the likelihood that someone close to you is experiencing depression.
The advice from mental health charity Aware is to ”support your loved one unconditionally when they are unwell. Non-judgemental listening can be a huge help as can practical support e.g. driving them to appointments or cooking a nutritious meal.”
Aware emphasises the need to get an accurate diagnosis, and to encourage your loved one to see their GP or mental health professional.
However, Aware also stresses the importance of family support: ”A three-person care team is the most effective way to deal with mood disorder: the individual, the doctor and a family member or close friend.
”Remember that difficult behaviours are part of the condition. If you are upset by a remark or behaviour, try not to react with anger. It is better to address this upset after the depressive episode has passed.”
Aware advises that ”if you think your loved one may be suicidal, discuss this with [them].
”This will not increase the risk of the person harming themselves, and indeed allowing them to discuss it with you may help to relieve some of these thoughts and feelings.”
Ireland’s suicide rates have increased worryingly since the recession hit. Thankfully, however, the majority of depression is moderate or mild in nature — and most experience it only periodically.
Winston Churchill suffered periodically from depression and memorably referred to it as the ”black dog”.
This image of a stray dog is a useful one for those who suffer from occasional bouts of depression: it may disappear for months, or years, only to turn up again at your door.
When it does, you are wise to be ready for it — and not to be afraid to ask for help in shooing it away.
In 1911, Churchill wrote to his wife at his delight upon finding a doctor who specialised in treating depression (rare in those days).
He said: ”I think this man might be useful to me — if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now — it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.”
If the man who cheerfully took on the Nazis was not afraid to ask for help with depression, then neither should you be — whether for yourself or your loved ones.
For more see aware.ie or call 1890 303 302
leanonme.net offers advice for those supporting friends or family through depression.