Even in normal circumstances there are many stressors that threaten our mental well being. Depression is not just a controllable reaction to ordinary life. It is a disease that often requires treatment. Quite sadly society still tends to see it as a kind of weakness in those whom it afflicts. Far too many believe that dealing with depression is little more than a matter of changing one’s attitude, thinking positive thoughts, trusting in God. They believe that depression is a kind of selfishness that only occurs because the person afflicted with it is unwilling to “get a grip.” Depression as other mental illnesses is still hidden and all too often viewed so negatively that it is barred from open discussion. We will listen to someone describing a heart attack and even support them as they recover but we tend to squirm uncomfortably in conversations about depression.
Depressed people often feel abandoned, alone and misunderstood. They fear mentioning their illness lest the lose jobs or friendships. Society values strength of character so highly that depressed persons are wary of mentioning their affliction, often making excuses for their absences. They too often live in a world darkened even more by the white lies that they tell to hide their affliction.
I recall the furor that occurred in a presidential election when it was discovered that one of the vice presidential candidates had been treated for depression. Rather than applauding him for seeking treatment he was derided as someone who would be unfit for the job. The backlash was horrific and set back mental health even more than it already was. Ironically few people were aware that one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, suffered from depression that was so extreme that he had a breakdown after the death of a person who had been very special to him.
Of late famous individuals are courageously stepping out of the shadows of depression and speaking of their own journeys with the disease. Michael Phelps is one the most notable among them. He has become a spokesperson and advocate for seeking medical help when darkness of the mind becomes crushing. He has now admitted to being plagued by crippling depression for most of his life. He had moments when he was so sick that he seriously considered killing himself even as he was one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. It was only when his pain became unbearable that he sought the medical therapies that he needed to feel whole and healthy again.
During this time of pandemic depression is on the rise. It is often triggered by stress and uncertainty or extreme changes of normal routines. It knows no demographic limits. it can affect young and old, poor and wealthy. No doubt it is reaching into thousands of households as individuals deal with the threat of illness, loss of jobs, dwindling incomes, concerns about sending children to school, fears of eviction, struggles with the deaths of loved ones. The world is being slammed to an extent rarely endured and depression is spreading suffering on a scale that we rarely see.
In a recent podcast Michelle Obama spoke of her own sadness during the pandemic. Even though her situation is safe and secure she has been troubled and worried by what she sees happening to so many Americans. She realizes that there is a kind of national grief that so many of us are experiencing. Sometimes the brain chemistry that creates those dark feelings gets out of hand and the level of depression becomes unbearable. She urged all of us to reach out to those that we know and love, not just in emails and texts and posts on Facebook but with phone calls and face to face conferences.
We need human contact even as we require social distances. Behind our masks are psychological needs that grow into physical illnesses of the mind if we do not care for ourselves. As someone who is an unreserved advocate for mental health I know how dire depression can become if left untreated. Many times I watched my mother devolve into a paralyzing darkness that literally led her to a state of psychosis. Time and again I had to force her to accept medical attention that she desperately needed. I implore everyone to watch for signs of distress in both themselves and those they love. Do not hesitate to reach out for help. Contact friends. Contact doctors. Do not ignore the signs. Depression is a treatable disease.
It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to be as vigilant about depression as we are with Covid-19. The virus is creating havoc in often unseen ways. We have to wear our masks and follow the guidelines for social distancing but we also need to support one another emotionally. If the government will not provide security for those who are in dangerous economic situations then those of us fortunate enough to be okay need to find someone who is not and adopt them. Nobody should be thrown to the wolves during this time. It is up to all of us to provide support, love and understanding. Somebody needs you today.