by Nick Thornton
We all see the ads. Sad girl on bus, chin on hand, perhaps sighing, always alone – and a phone number below saying there’s a place to reach out. Twenty years ago, hell, five years ago, you didn’t see many ads like this. Depression was something crazy people in dark rooms had and it was basically their own fault for not being strong willed enough. But every year, more and more young people (and, importantly, people of all ages) were diagnosed with depression or took their own lives, and we started to see that those depressed people were everywhere, not just an isolated few.
Unfortunately, the stigma and misconceptions remain. Rather than a constructive conversation around the myriad forms that depression takes and how to treat it seriously, millions of dollars and countless hours have been poured into trying to make depression seem like something that can be fixed quickly by referring someone to a professional or a phone number.
***I need to pause here to acknowledge the tireless efforts of those who genuinely want to make a difference. I am not for a second trying to belittle their efforts or reasons, merely to open up the conversation.***
I don’t claim to be an expert on anyone’s own situation, nor even an expert on my own. I am the last person someone would mark as a person who has suffered/suffers from depression. I’m frequently loud, outgoing and positive, I have a fairly large circle of friends and excellent family support. I’m the funny person at parties (or so I like to think) and I don’t mope alone on a park bench staring listlessly into the distance wishing someone would ask me what’s wrong. I’m not trying to make fun of anyone, I’m trying to illustrate that depression is so much more complicated than people often view it. There aren’t always outward “warning signs”, someone doesn’t necessarily talk about ending their life and there aren’t always unusual behavioral changes.
But so what? All the same services still exist for those aforementioned people, no? Not exactly. Publicly available counsellors are few and far between and often for crisis intervention or “emergency” help only. Unfortunately, exactly what constitutes an emergency seems to vary greatly. For example, panic attacks and anxiety are often referred out rather than being taken as a “crisis.” Clearly, whoever lives by that criteria has never had a panic attack. Private counsellors and therapists provide valuable services and, in my opinion, the very necessary long-term assistance required to successfully manage depression. Unfortunately, those visits will run you anywhere from $80-$120+ per hour, and aren’t always available in smaller communities. Some counsellors do offer sliding scale rates but to a young person, someone unemployed or on disability, even a reduced rate of $50 per hour is out of reach.
Treating depression can be very expensive. Often, several approaches are required and here’s why: Depression is very rarely cured by a pill. Or a doctor. Or a counsellor. Or a really good chat with a close friend. Recovery from depression can take months, years, even a lifetime. It requires a lot of serious and hard-to-have conversations with people of all backgrounds, from a college counsellor, to a parent, to a psychoanalyst, to a minister or spiritual leader. It requires a lot of energy on the part of the person who is seeking recovery, energy that is often very hard to come up with.
Too often, resources just aren’t available to people. Waits to see a referred doctor or specialist can take weeks or months. Free counselling services are often understaffed, under funded and only offer crisis point “emergency” support. Every year we’re fed more and more statistics, about young people in particular: how many take medication, how many commit suicide, how many miss school or work, how much money was thrown at the problem.
So why are so many of us still depressed and why does that number continue to grow? Because no one wants to have the very difficult conversations. We think that depression will just go away quietly if someone “seeks help” or “reaches out.” Reaches out to whom?
You. Ask questions. Check in. Tell people how much they mean to you. Call randomly. Be there when it sucks being there most. Don’t just refer someone away, take time to get to know them, get to know their situation. Don’t assume. Don’t judge. Don’t back away. Depression is not necessarily something that exists in of itself. Life is hard and can be very cruel, particularly to people who don’t fit in. Instead of “it get’s better” campaigns, we should be focusing on making it better for those who struggle to find their way.
For me, depression comes and goes, often mildly these days, but still comes along when I think I’ve dealt with the last of it. I don’t claim to be “cured” or “better” but I made a lot of progress talking to friends and family about it, refusing to be labelled by the stigma of what depression is. Yes, it made people uncomfortable. My response is: too bad. We need to be uncomfortable before we can understand how to treat depression. Often, things like taking up new activities or hobbies go hand in hand with having open conversations with professionals and friends. There’s this idea that persists that depression can only be treated by qualified professionals. I mean absolutely no disrespect to the fine individuals that provide an immense service to those suffering from depression but I just simply don’t believe that’s true. There are definitely times when a professional is needed. I’ve used the gamut of professional mental health services (public and private) and rarely been disappointed. But the whole conversation needs to start with someone listening and rather than saying the ever infuriating and exasperating “you need to get some help,” or “why don’t you try talking to ______”, instead saying: “I’m here for you.”
We can help each other, we don’t need to sweep anything under the rug. I’m here for you.
Nick is a 4th year History major at UBC, as well as the CEO (and sole employee) of Unboring Learning.com, a free online learning site. His 5th grade report card said: "Nick is a conscientious student but distracts his classmates." You can follow him on Twitter: @unboringlearn