If there are around 7 billion people in the world, then I reckon that there are about 7 billion ways to explain depression. Seriously. Everyone is so different. Just when you think you’ve nailed a way to explain what it is and how it affects you, you come across someone for whom that explanation just doesn’t cut it. Now, I know that it’s not necessary to tell everyone what is going on. It is not everyone’s business and not everyone even wants to know. But sometimes it’s necessary – and necessary that they have an understanding of what depression actually is rather than just what they assume it to be. If someone is going to support you, live with you, take your sickness certificates seriously when they start piling up or you relapse in the work place – they need to understand more than just what they see at surface level.
So how do you get there?
How do you explain that you have this black dog that is constantly with you, even when under your command and at heel?
How do you help someone get past the idea that you could just put mind over matter if you wanted to?
How do you convince your boss that you’re not being lazy? Or taking sickies?
How do you convince your grandfather who is not very aware of mental health issues that you are not a hypochondriac?
Do you find yourself getting into arguments over these things? Being left feeling guilty and doubting yourself because of the things that people say? Feeling frustrated and defeated because they just don’t understand? Or just feeling out of your depth explaining the nature of depression, it’s causes, what perpetuates it and what helps to treat it and to support your recovery? You are not alone. Do you struggle to understand these things yourself?
The first step in becoming more confident explaining what is happening to you to someone else is to become more confident in your own understanding. Write down what you know. Organise your ideas under headings like
My Diagnosis (there are different types of depression):
Definition of diagnosis and Symptoms:
Thoughts (ie what it does to them, not necessarily yours although you may include a couple of less risky examples):
Behaviour (ie what people do because of depression):
Effects on function and everyday life:
Treatments that people use (ie medication and therapies):
Treatments I use: How well my treatments are working (and if you are thinking of trying any others some time):
Things recommended to help recovery:
Things that I do/am doing:
Things that are recommended for carers/supporters/workplaces who are supporting people who have depression:
Resources that I have found that might be handy to give people:
How did you go? Where are the gaps?
The next step is to dig around and fill in some of the gaps in your own mind. Make a list of the questions that you still have. You don’t necessarily need to have them all answered before you talk to someone about your depression – but they are there for you to follow up on for your own benefit. Sometimes you can also make a joint venture out of finding the missing information with the person you plan to talk to if they are someone who you trust. If anyone would like me to work through a series on these or to post any heading in particular I’d be happy to include something like this in future entries. Please put any suggestions or requests in the comments section for this post.
When you have thought through these things for yourself and written them down – if you come to a time when you need to pull your thoughts together for an explanation it is so much easier to do. The next thing to think about is this. What type of person or question are you dealing with?
People like your grandparents and some parents have been brought up in a generation where sickness is seen in form of a disease or medical issue – so with them, I would start by explaining to them the aspect of depression caused by biological factors and that it’s an episodic illness. Perhaps I would give them some information to read, or would talk to them and describe what happens – maybe draw a diagram of a synapse and show them how my neurotransmitters are out of balance. Then I would tell them the symptoms that causes and how they affect everything else. Then I would go back to my drawing and show them how my medication works and talk to them about why I need to keep on taking it. If they were interested and wanted to know more about my treatment, I might also explain that I go to a psychologist to learn techniques to overcome other symptoms too because they have become fairly stubborn and I get lost in them at times – but that I don’t expect that this will be like the medication, and it’s not like lying on a couch talking. It’s about learning specific skills and having time limited therapy that has been show in the research to be very effective in strengthening recovery and preventing relapse. I might then tell them about my goals and what I’ve been working on and how things are going. Lastly I would talk to them about what kinds of things experts say that family and friends do that help. If they wanted something to look at for more information, I would try for something from a doctor or official health site, in large print if I could find it.
Your boss might need a medical kind of approach too. With them I would also look for information for employers on one of the mental health support websites. BeyondBlue has a good one (http://beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=7.980&tmp=FileDownload&fid=1176 ). It has another one about whether or not to disclose if you are considering the decision (http://beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=7.980&http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=6.1068&tmp=FileDownload&fid=356 ). I would stick to workplace issues only and be clear about how your efforts are going in relation to getting or staying on top of your work. Make sure that you are clear of your work place rights. If you are in Australia, BeyondBlue spell them out more specifically or direct you to a source. I’m not sure where international readers would need to go. Mr Google would, I’m sure.
For siblings and friends – it probably depends upon how they relate. Some will understand best if you describe it by its symptoms and numerous courses, some will need a scientific approach, others will need an explanation of the treatments that they see you taking and using as an entry point. Usually family and close friends want to know what they can do and feel frustrated when they feel helpless. It’s important to make sure to give them information about your symptoms, your treatment, what your doctor thinks is causing it and what they can do to support you. Sit down with them and talk about what helps if they are involved in your life. If they are not talkative people, gradually feed them things to read.
I’m not going to talk about young to school-aged children here because I want to talk to a friend who is a specialist in this area and do a special post specifically on this topic at another time. However, for adult children my advice is similar to that which I have written for siblings. Generally they want to feel that Mum or Dad is okay. Yes, it’s strange and they start hovering as though they were the parents and can get overbearing at times. Other times they may be so caught up in their own lives that they don’t even seem to notice. In both cases, it’s important that you are ready to educate. If you don’t have the energy for the conversation, young adults will respond to websites. Sending them to http://www.beyondblue.org.au , http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au and http://www.scottishrecoverynetwork.net will get them well oriented to Depression, treatments and some people’s experiences stories if they look around. There are also great resources there for family and friends. Then they can come back and talk to you about what they have learned.
Then of course there are your parents. All the strategies in the world will not stop their concern at times. This is part of their world. For most people, when things are hard – all a parent wants to be able to do is make it better, easier somehow. It’s the nature of the role and love that they have had no matter how old we get. I am aware that there are people who are not lucky enough to have families who have cared for them like this – but on the whole, a parent’s response to any perception of threat to your wellbeing is a desire to protect you (remember, that one that’s been driving you nuts since you were at least as young as 14). When talking to your parents about your depression remember this. Once a parent – who has considered themselves a carer or a protector throughout your life when you have been unwell or threatened – accepts that you have depression and understands the nature of the illness, they will find it difficult to respond to as well. It is good to have information designed for families and carers for them if they find watching you struggle hard. Make sure that you spend time talking with them about what helps and what doesn’t. Calmly. Write it down first if you need to. I share things to read with my family. They don’t say much, but their education shows in the things that come up when we are talking about my health or my plans for the future.
My observation from working with people who find their parents “too interfering” is that often in by not telling them anything about what they are doing for their depression – is that a lot of the parent’s interference is related to ignorance; and that more, rather than less information about what is going on, better education for the parent and some help to reassure the parent that their son or daughter is making healthy choices goes a long way toward defusing the situation. I know that this is not true in every case, but frequently it is. And while some of the parents need to learn better adult boundaries, others are just desperate for the wellbeing of their son or daughter. It may not be possible to put all of your parent’s concerns to rest. This is not your job. Nor is it your job to protect them from ‘finding out’ – because ten to one odds say that they have already noticed that you haven’t been yourself for a while and are already worrying in secret if bothering to hide it. Explaining the true shape of the issue that you are dealing with and telling them how they can help rather than leaving them to shadow box with the ghosts they imagine is all that you can do.
Sometimes, unfortunately, like we might have been to start with – the people we care about or people we need to know may also remain in denial of depression in someone they know. This is very hard. Sometimes a family member might respond if they come to the doctor with you. Other times it may be a case of letting your treatment and the efforts that you are putting in prove themselves over time. It is hard to be motivated to do this with someone saying that you are being lazy or playing sick. It doesn’t help the thoughts. It can increase anxiety. It is humiliating even to one’s self. If the person won’t respond to your attempts to talk to them or to give them information, unfortunately it is difficult to make their choices for them. However, the best way to deal with them is to prove them wrong. The best way to prove them wrong is to prove that the treatment that you are undertaking and the effort that you are putting in is having an impact. Even if it’s a partial impact that goes in fits and starts – change can be a catalyst for more change. Perhaps seeing a change in you as you progress will convince them that there was something to that information that you tried to give them a few months ago…