Oct 26, 2011

Coping with depression in college

Two Trinity students, Tim Smyth and Jessica Pitcher, write about their experience with depression.

Tim Smyth

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It took a long time for me to realise that I was depressed. If I try to trace my way back through the muddle I was in up until about three months ago, I find myself back in Transition Year, upstairs in my bedroom wondering why I wasn’t able to enjoy myself the way everyone else seemed to, and wondering when the whole process of growing up would start to seem exciting rather than merely terrifying. The details of whatever situation you find yourself in becoming overwhelming. You’re in a café, you’re talking to someone, and you’re not even able to listen to what their saying: the other customers’ cups grate too loudly on their saucers, you’re worried you’ve offended the waitress because you forgot to say “please”, and of course you don’t want your mate to realise you’re not paying attention. Everything ends up stewed down to its component fibres because you’re looking at it all so hard.

One of the hardest things people find about dealing with someone who’s depressed is that they can sometimes seem to be ‘off in their own little world’. It’s a charge I completely accept, because I knew I was choosing to live in my own little sealed-off bubble all along. Some decide to buy weed online to encourage themselves to become more engaged with the world around them but I don’t think that is for myself.

Even though nothing could touch me, I could still see through the skin of that bubble, and it all scared me: the past, with all the things I winced to think of; the present, which just looked like a whole load of wasted time swirling down the drain; and, most of all, the future, with all its attendant decisions about careers, relationships and insurance companies. The worst thing, though, wasn’t the terror: it was the sense that I needed to be scared in order to function.

The fear and gloom just became the backdrop and loomed across everything. Friends, girlfriends, nights out, nights in, failures, successes, work and play: it was a full life, that was for sure, but I couldn’t see any of it except through the smoked glass of my grim moods.

I eventually took myself in hand because I met someone special. I made an appointment with the college health service in April of this year, which equipped me with the tools I needed to get going.

I’m sceptical of definitions, but hearing that this thing I’d been living with was called ‘depression’ meant that I could isolate and to a degree contain the whole situation. I was also put on a mild dose of anti-depressants, and, in practical terms they give me just that extra little bit of resolve when it comes to getting through the day.

I used to hope there would be a time when it would magically disappear. I used to imagine that somehow this would all be worth it, that someday I would make my ‘great escape’, and that somehow I would be able to exchange all these sufferings for a reward. Life doesn’t work like that. Depression doesn’t work like that. It’s not a problem that you can solve, it’s not a disease that you can cure, it’s not an adversary that you defeat: it’s a condition that you live with, and it’s something that you need to work to control.

Luckily, though, the more you put in that effort, the stronger you get. At the moment it’s enough for me to be able to keep back the gloom, but I know that someday I’ll be able to engage with it with even more success.

It took me a long time to realise I was depressed, but that realisation marks the starting-point of what feels like a whole other life.

This article was first printed in The Irish Times

My name is Jessica, and I have depression

Jessica Pitcher

For me, depression is like a lingering noise in the night whose source you can never work out. Sometimes, it’s flat-bang ringing on full belt, and other times it’s a barely audile distant whirr. Its only real consistency is that it’s always present in some shape or form. The general consensus within the world of mental health is that depression comes in two pre-dominant varieties. There’s the one that’s clearly sparked by a traumatic event like the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, but persists for too long after. Then there’s the one that’s not prompted by any particular occurrence, but presents itself regardless. It’s the latter that’s plagued me for most of my college life, the one that sucks away like a leech on your arm, uncaring of the fact that your essay’s due in tomorrow or that you’ve a date tonight with Shia LaBoeuf (one day…).

Sympathisers will often say that depression is like a disease of the mind or a cancer of the soul, and whilst I do agree, it should not be dismissed as an illness impervious to your physicality. It is a disease so multi-faceted, that both spheres, the mental and the physical, are equally affected. Many already know about the medicinal purposes of mainstream antidepressants or SSRIs; essentially they increase the levels of serotonin, the “happy” chemical, absorbed by synapses in the brain, and so create a more stable mental and emotional equilibrium. Most doctors who prescribe antidepressants will acknowledge the fact that their patients cannot be treated by the little white pill alone, but must also see a counsellor or other mental health professional. But even then, with a course of pills and counseling, I still feel that only the basics are really addressed.

It’s undeniably beneficial to “talk-it-out”, whether it be with family, friends, hot-line volunteers, or professionals, yet there’s only so far that this will take you. Social stigma is a leading adversary in the battle against depression, yet it’s not derived from any lack of sympathy. How many times have you been scorned for crying? Probably not too many. When you seek compassion, it’s rare that you’re coldly turned away. The real problem is rooted in how those around you attempt to deal with your depression. The stigma manifests itself in the most subtle of ways. If you too are afflicted by depression, you’ll know how niggling it can be for a confidante to tell you that they too feel “sad” sometimes, or that “others” have it much worse off, or that you should just “cheer-up”. Comparing and contrasting your depression with others’ only makes things worse.

Every case is unique and must be treated as such. Naturally, we are indebted to groups who endeavour to change people’s lives for the better, but we should not overlook the fact that mental illness is susceptible to a multitude of factors, which includes how sufferers perceive and interact with the groups who try to help them. I fear that some such organisations have reached a point of saturation, where the impersonal nature of their own campaigns inadvertently hinders their objectives. It’s fragile ground that has to be treaded upon with care.

When we blur the line between simply feeling sad and being clinically depressed, we are unwittingly isolating those who seek our help. We are faced with a stark reality where our own friends, families, professors, and employers are much quicker to cast our depression aside than they would be if we were coping with cancer, or diabetes, or a broken limb. It is, of course, difficult for the people in our lives to assess and sympathise with an ailment that one, shows no decipherable physical symptoms, and two, can be easily exploited. For someone like me, who essentially has no “real reason” to be depressed, this is a harsh truth to deal with. Doctor’s note or not, it is too often perceived as an excuse and a foible of a weak-willed person. It is a social injustice that a person plagued by such a potent condition not only has to struggle with this issue itself, but must also find their way through a minefield of misunderstanding and ignorance.

If you’re suffering from depression, I would, first of all, urge you to come out and say it. If you’re afraid or ashamed of letting those around you know, then you’re falling victim to a society conditioned to silence. Don’t be afraid to wear it on your arm like a cast. Like a broken bone, it will heal. It may be a daunting prospect, but in the end, it is you who’ll come out on top.

My name is Jessica, and I have depression. What’s your story?

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