Home FeaturedLuqmaan Rawat Seeing the light on mental illness

Seeing the light on mental illness

Depression - A smiling face does not mean a heart is happy

by Luqmaan Rawat
A happy face can hide many secrets. The sooner the stereotypes are gone, the sooner people will seek help Photo Pexels

South Africa – Depression is one of the leading causes of deaths around the world. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) approximately 280 million people in the world have it. It is a well-known mental illness and yet many unhelpful stereotypes exist about it.

Depression is different from usual mood fluctuations and short-lived reactions to life events. According to Zakiyah Hoosen, Registered Counsellor, clinical depression can be defined as “a mental health disorder where an individual experiences a persistent low/depressed mood”. They can also experience a loss of interest in activities. It can cause a significant impairment in their daily functioning life. An individual may experience depression as a result of significant life changes, grief or loss, heartbreak, and divorce. It may also be inherited from family and family environments.

The most common types of depression experienced by people

There are different types of depression disorders. Depression can occur because of a life changing event and some can occur because of specific events. According to Hoosen, the most common one is what is known as Major Depressive Disorder.

A major depressive episode happens over a two-week period or more. It is the definition of depression. Most people suffer from this depression. Symptoms include hopelessness, loss of pleasure, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts.

The second most common one is Dysthymia which is also known as persistent depressive disorder. This is a long-term form of depression. People with dysthymia often find it hard to be happy even on joyous occasions. Symptoms may come and go and even change intensity, but they generally don’t disappear for more than two months at a time.

The third most common one is what is called Postpartum or Peripartum Depression. This type of depressive disorder is commonly associated with the “baby blues” explained Hoosen. The cause of it is unknown but it is associated to the dramatic hormonal changes that follow childbirth. Around one in seven women will experience this type of depression.

“Symptoms might include insomnia, loss of appetite, intense irritability, and difficulty bonding with the baby. If it goes unnoticed and untreated, the condition can last up to several months.”

Happy people can’t have depression

We often hear this statement that a happy person cannot be depressed. With the passing of the legendary comedian, Robin Williams, we learnt that statement was far from true. Just because someone may appear to be happy doesn’t mean they cannot be depressed. There can be various reasons a person who is depressed is hiding it from the world, explained Hoosen.

“Persons that appear happy may be concealing their mental health condition due to a fear of being stigmatised or stereotyped, due to embarrassment or because they blame themselves for feeling that way. Symptoms of depression may manifest differently amongst individuals. Since some of the telling signs of depression is a lack of interest and a low mood, it would be a relatively “normal” thing if a person appeared sad.”

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Sad situations are not the only cause for depression

Many people believe a person has to be going through something sad to be depressed. This is not always the case. The birth of a child is something beautiful and wonderful. Yet, a mother can still experience postpartum depression. This is not borne out of sadness. Depression can be caused by a number of things, not just sadness, said Hoosen.

“A person may experience depression due to a chemical imbalance, after a traumatic event, due to loss or grief, following a challenging life experience such as unemployment, divorce, heartbreak, illness etc. Depression can also be inherited from parents and family environments, or in responses to a combination of factors mentioned above.”

Thinking happy thoughts is not a cure for it

People who have depression often point out they are told it is all in their head or if they had a stronger will they could ‘snap out of it’. Nobody chooses to be depressed. People believe it can be cured with positive thoughts or a change in attitude. People mistakenly believe depression is caused by someone wallowing in sad thoughts. Due to this, they also believe only a weak-minded individual may have it. This belief is a social and societal stigma due to the nature of depression, explained Hoosen.

“A person experiencing depression is persistently experiencing a low/depressed mood, struggles to maintain interest in activities, feels hopeless and empty and overall has decreased energy. These may be seen as “weak”. State of mind would be subjective and once again, would vary among individuals. Therefore, a blanket statement cannot refer to this complex mental health condition. Due to the persistent nature of this low mood, a person may find it difficult to dispel heavy emotions, or to challenge negative thoughts.”

Depression isn’t a sign of weakness or laziness. It’s a condition in which the brain chemistry of a person is negatively affected due to a variety of reasons.

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The myths surrounding antidepressants

Antidepressants are normally prescribed to treat depression disorders. There are different kinds of them and while all of them act on the brain, each type comes with different mechanisms of action. Antidepressants work by increasing the levels of so-called feel-good chemicals in the brain. Many people wrongfully believe that once you are on antidepressants it will cure your depression. This is not the case.

“Antidepressants do not cure depression, rather it assists your body and brain to produce the correct balance of neurotransmitters required to obtain a healthy level of functioning.”

As explained before, antidepressants change the chemical chemistry in a person’s brain. Some people may find this scary. Some feel as if this chemistry change will cause a person to lose their identity or change their personality. However, a person’s traits are hardwired, and antidepressants will not change this, said Hoosen.

“Antidepressants do not change a personality since personality traits are hard-wired. Instead, a person may display a lighter, relaxed, or more engaged mood and affect if they are on medication because the antidepressants are effectively doing its job.”

The effect it provides leaves some people feeling that they may be on it forever or even get addicted to it. This is not the case. Antidepressants are only prescribed for a set amount of time, and it depends on the severity of the depression, said Hoosen.

It affects everyone, not only women

Society has created a notion which has impacted the lives of many men. Society has taught us that men don’t suffer from depression. This has caused many men to hide their feelings, to feel ashamed about seeking help and speaking out. It has grave consequences for men. They are more likely to commit suicide because of depression.

There are other stereotypes surrounding depression. These stereotypes stop people from getting the help they need and deserve. Hoosen has heard many of these stereotypes.

“Some common stereotypes are:

  •  ‘You’re just sad for no reason’ – persistent emptiness, low mood and decreased energy are among the most common telling signs for depression. A person who is experiencing depression is not ‘just sad’, and even if they have no reason or cause, they are not doing it out of their own will. Instead, they may be struggling to function on a daily basis due to their mental health condition.
  • ‘Other people have it worse, you can’t pity yourself all the time’ – comparing individuals and their experiences to others may be detrimental, since each person has a different threshold and mental health capacity to deal with their experiences.”

There are also other common misconceptions that exist in society.

“According to South African Depression And Anxiety Group (SADAG) they are;

  • Depression is often not considered a real illness
  • People believe that depression shows weakness of character
  • Many people blame themselves
  • Individuals with depression have a fear of being stigmatised and have a fear of being discriminated by their friends and family
  • Depression can be confused with other illnesses and is often not recognised.”

These misconceptions and stereotypes have created an environment in which people feel they are unable to speak out and get the help they need.

What can we do to remove these stereotypes

It is important that we break down these stereotypes and misconceptions. We have lost far too many people from depression, and we cannot continue to create an environment where we lose more people to it. The answer is simple but hard to do. We need to educate and create an awareness of what depression is and engage with others in a compassionate way, said Hoosen. It is only through these ways will we be able to break these walls down and help those who need help.

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