Three weeks ago, Mental Health Awareness Week graced Ireland, hoping to shine a light on the different kinds of mental illness some people live with. If you spent time on Facebook or other social media during that time, you probably saw pictures float by saying, “Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign you’ve been trying to remain strong for too long.”
While everyone goes through a short time of feeling low at some stage in his or her life, feeling down can also be a symptom of an illness other than depression, like multiple sclerosis.
The last few weeks, depression has been a much talked about topic in my group of friends, culminating in a very brave post by one of my friends on MS Ireland’s MS & Me blog. It takes guts opening up like this, especially when nobody ever expected you to feel this way.
Feeling encouraged by other people’s bravery to open up on their emotional turmoil secret, I decided to stand up and say, yes, I too know what depression feels like. In fact, I have been feeling down, if not depressed, for a couple of months now. Like Joan wrote in her post, ‘Having come through its horrors, I want to stand up and say that I’m NOT ashamed and that there IS a way past it.’
There is indeed no shame in being depressed. It can happen to any of us, for any reason and at any time. Nobody is protected from those deep, dark clouds in your mind. In my own case, a never-ending cycle started when doing too much turned into an increase in neuropathic pain, which in turn led to restless nights because of the pain, leading to more and stronger neuropathic pain, mainly in the form of trigeminal neuralgia.
Realising I cannot sit at a laptop 2 hours in a row or have the energy to vacuum the house or clean the bathroom, eventually caught up with me mentally. Cancelling visits to friends week after week, or an hour of walking around in the zoo at the age of 41, I eventually lost interest in going outside. I also couldn’t stand reading newspapers anymore because of all the blood and gore written in them, and I felt anxious about the silliest of reasons.
I admit I languished in silence. I felt mortified saying how I’ve been lately, because everyone expects the usual banter from me: laughing, witty remarks and so on. Inside however, doing so just drained me mentally, if not physically.
Also, it is one thing replying “Ah yeah, the old aches and pains as usual,” every time people ask me how I am. It’s a very different ball game when it comes to saying “You know, I’m feeling depressed again today.” Some people simply are not ready to hear your answer, or they might not be interested, lack time, energy or knowledge on how to deal with someone who is feeling down.
So how do you know you’re depressed? There are eight main symptoms, and if you have five or more of below symptoms which last for two weeks or more, it would be wise to visit your GP or mental health professional.
- Feeling anxious, sad or bored
- Under- or over-sleep, waking up frequently during the night
- Feeling tired throughout the day or lack energy
- You lose interest in your social or family life
- You feel you’re not interested anymore in life, or when you start thinking about death and suicide
- Feeling ill, with aches and pains not related to anything physical, like headaches, tummy aches related to stress and anxiety
- Your concentration span is getting shorter and your thinking slows down
- You have low self-esteem or feelings of guilt
Some symptoms of depression are also symptoms of MS, and it can be difficult identifying which is which. For example, fatigue can be related to depression, or may be a direct result of MS, or a combination of the two.
It’s good to know, and remember, what the causes of depression could be:
- Depression is a medical illness caused by a neuro-chemical or hormonal imbalance in the brain
- Family history of depression
- Depression is the outcome of certain negative life events like bereavement, loss of job, ending of a relationship, bullying etc.
- Depression can be caused by certain ways of thinking
The most commonly held view is that depression is a combination of these four reasons. Research has also shown that depression can be directly linked to MS-related damage in certain parts of the brain, although this is just part of the equation.
Other reasons also play a part as to why depression is linked to MS, like social circumstances, side effects of medication, psychological reactions to living with MS etc. Studies have shown that 50 percent of people with MS will likely experience depression.
In some conditions, there can be a link between being disabled and having depression, but in MS, depression does not seem to be related to how disabled a person is. For example, someone with little physical disability may experience severe depression and vice versa.
There is also no clear link between how long someone has had MS and the risk of being depressed. For example, someone who is recently diagnosed can be as depressed as someone who has had MS for many years. Another very interesting note is that there is no direct relationship between the progression of MS or disability and depression.
The number of coping strategies people with MS display is linked to the severity of depression, meaning the better you cope with feeling down, the less you will feel depressed. It’s about taking control of your illness, both mentally and physically. It’s almost a quid pro quo relationship.
If all this doesn’t work out, don’t feel guilty or ashamed. Just pick up that phone and call a friend or family member. You might be surprised how quickly people will listen, if not provide help when you need it most.
Like my dear friend Joan wrote, “I also hope that I will be able to help others by speaking out about how dreadful it feels and what helped me out of the pit of despair.” Inspired by her words and strength, I hope to keep the circle of hope for better days going. When all is said and done, let’s be the heroes of our own darkest of days.
© Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me, 2011-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.Q