Tips for Supporting Someone Experiencing Depression

After I shared a list of the tools helping me handle depression, I started to think about what my experience has taught me about helping other people.

Do you know someone suffering from depression? If you do, it can feel difficult to know what to say or what to do. Based on what I’ve learnt so far, here are my tips for supporting someone you care about.

Dont…

…tell them to toughen up. Believe me, they are already trying their best. Being told to “fight back” or “be stronger” only makes you feel much, much worse. It is difficult to trust someone who clearly believes that you are not trying hard enough or that you are just ‘pretending’ to be miserable.

…judge them for taking medication. You can be sure that they have discussed doing so with professionals and made an informed decision. They don’t need you to decide whether or not their pain is ‘important’ enough. Someone once shouted at me and said she didn’t think I could be ‘unwell enough’ to need pills. Luckily for her, she was not in my head, so she could not feel my pain. None of us can really know what is best for someone else. 

…force them to go out, party or cheer up. Some days, it is simply impossible to fake it. So, unless you want to see them break down in tears in front of everyone at the party, drop it. Let them choose to hide for a while, be gentle. Just show them you are listening to them and there for them no matter what.

Do…

…be patient. Accept that they will have bad days, that their mood might change, and that they might refuse to tell you anything for now.

…pay attention and ask questions – gently. Check if their appetite has gone up or down, ask them about their sleep – a lot of symptoms are invisible. No one around me could ever even imagine that I have had suicidal thoughts, but I have. Try not to make assumptions about your friends, some people are really positive and enthusiastic, but it doesn’t mean they are at peace within themselves. Some of us have become masters at hiding pain.

…remind your friends to take some ‘self-care’ time and do it with them. Sometimes watching a movie, sharing nice food and going to bed at 9pm with your friend is just perfect.

…encourage them. Congratulate on every little step. Sometimes getting up in the morning is so hard. Opening up about their pain and feelings is hard. So if they trust you enough to open up to you, be grateful and proud of them.

…remember you don’t have to say anything. It’s very hard to find the right words to comfort someone. Sometimes it can be ok just to listen and be present.

…break the stigma. Every time you hear any of the followings, please speak up. For the sake of everyone, let’s make these false statements stop: “people who are depressed are weak”, “depression is a white person’s problem”, “you must experience difficult or traumatic external conditions for your depression to be valid”

One final point – remember to check on the men and boys around you. They feel pain too but gender norms and inequalities might be making it very difficult for them to open up about it!

Opinions and experiences published on girlsglobe.org are not medical advice. If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek professional help from a doctor. 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or if you know someone who is, please reach out for help immediately. Suicide Stop has a list of suicide hotlines worldwide, which you can find here

My Not-So-Easy Mental Health Recovery Journey

I’ve noticed that many of the stories I encounter about mental health tend to focus either on the darkest moments or on the triumphant ones – including the stories I’ve shared myself. In between those two opposites, however, there is a long road of treatment, recovery, and daily battles, as well as a lot of gray days that are neither too dark nor too triumphant.

Here is something I wished people knew about my mental health recovery journey so far…

If I say that I see a psychiatrist, take medication and have weekly therapy sessions, it does not mean that I’m always ‘well’ (much less ‘cured’).

I’ve had many people congratulating me for getting help and saying that they’re glad I am working with professionals to address my mental health conditions. But the truth is, doing these things doesn’t mean I’m always well. I still have bad (and even horrible) days, but treatment and recovery have helped me gain skills and tools to better deal with those days.

It may seem ‘easy’ to take medication and go to therapy. But what people who’ve never been on this journey may not know is that treatment for mental health conditions is very difficult, and it’s work — a lot of hard work.

It’s very ‘easy’ to take my three daily pills – one gulp of water and it’s done. But it’s not easy to deal with side effects, and medication changes, and how expensive they can get sometimes even with health insurance. And then there’s dealing with health insurance issues, and not being able to go out with colleagues after work because I have to stop by the pharmacy which is far away.

I have to keep tabs on my medications to make sure I never run out and organize them weekly into my medication container. I have to make sure I don’t forget to take them with me when needed and reach out to my psychiatrist when I need refills — all of which takes time and energy to do; and energy is not something I have much of when struggling with anxiety and depression.

I’ve changed medications several times and have experienced difficult side effects both starting and stopping medications: severe nausea, headaches, and increased anxiety that left me bed-bound for days.

I even had a pretty serious reaction to one of my medications that scared me – my provider couldn’t explain it. Because of how that experience destabilized me, there was even a moment when going into a psychiatric unit was a real possibility (which would have meant taking leave from my internship and master’s program).

Therapy has not been any easier. It’s expensive for me and a weekly commitment means having to say ‘no’ to more enjoyable activities. Therapy has been challenging and uncomfortable. It pushes me out of my comfort zone, which is hard to do even when my comfort zone has been harmful to me. It challenges my thoughts and behaviors. And in all therapy settings I’ve been in, I’ve always had some homework to do during the week (on top of all the work I have to do as a Ph.D. student).

I don’t regret getting help for my mental health, but I do wish someone had told me how long and difficult the journey of treatment and recovery could be.

Sometimes, I feel like quitting. I feel like never going to therapy again or canceling my next appointment with my psychiatrist, because the truth is, I’m tired and recovery is exhausting. I can’t make any plans or decisions without considering my treatment: how is it going to affect my therapy schedule? Will I have enough medication for this trip?

I will always encourage people to reach out for help if they are struggling with their mental health — it is important, and can be life-saving.

But I also believe it’s important that we start a conversation about what ‘getting help’ is actually like — and the truth is that it’s hardly ever easy.

It’s a sacrifice and for some, like me, it’s a life-long commitment. It’s challenging and uncomfortable. And through it all, we’re still experiencing our mental health conditions. It’s having a panic attack and going to therapy anyway. It’s going through a depressive episode and still getting out of bed for a psychiatric appointment.

Recovery for me has been still struggling but knowing I’m not struggling alone.

And though the journey is long and hard, treatment and recovery have given me hope and strength to carry on.

Opinions and experiences published on girlsglobe.org are not medical advice. If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek help from a doctor or mental health professional.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help immediately. In the United States, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TWT to 741741. For a list of international suicide hotlines, visit www.buddy-project.org/hotlines.

Are You at Risk of Burnout Syndrome?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a vital time to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health and the impact it has on many lives around the world. Run by UK charity Mental Health Foundation, the theme this year is stress.

Stress in itself is not a mental health diagnosis but it is an important factor that can lead to anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide. It also has physical health implications, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Reading about stress made me recall my days as an intern medical doctor in a rural South African hospital, and the stress that I endured in the overwhelming hospital environment. In the beginning I could not recognise that the physical and mental symptoms I was experiencing were related to stress and burnout syndrome. I found myself exhibiting signs of:

• Physical and mental fatigue
• Forgetfulness
• Depressed mood
• Irritability
• Detachment from my work and patients
• Sense of failure

After talking to my peers and doing some of my own research, I realised that I had burnout syndrome. I had never been prepared or warned about it as young professional. I also learned that as a female doctor I had 60% greater chance of experiencing burnout stress than my male colleagues. This was is related to gender-based expectations and societal pressures that women experience on a regular basis.

Burnout syndrome is a form of chronic stress. It is an alarm clock to a more serious problem and needs to be addressed as early as possible. In my instance, I spoke to my senior doctors and supervisors about how I was feeling. They helped me reduce the levels of stress I’d been feeling by finding me additional assistance for my workload. I started to focus on lifestyle changes to alleviate the symptoms such as eating healthily, exercising, and talking to someone about the frustrations I was dealing with at work.

We need to have active dialogues about stress and burnout. Ask yourself if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above. Involve others in that self-reflection. Start this week – discuss amongst your friends, your work peers and your family. Let’s engage in conversation so that we can recognise stress and allow ourselves to receive the help and treatment we need to handle it.

Don’t be Afraid to Say ‘I Have Anxiety’

The other day, I was having dinner with some girlfriends when one of them opened up about experiencing anxiety episodes over the past few months. She was really embarrassed, confused and crying.

As our conversation deepened, 3 of the 4 people at the table revealed they have been coping with anxiety for a long time. I was one of them. I sat there thinking: how is it possible that I have known these people for my entire life and yet we’ve never mentioned that we suffer from this condition?

Everyone can feel anxious from time to time – it’s a natural reaction of the body and the brain to certain situations or events. But an anxiety disorder is something else.

Have you ever felt as though you spend every single minute of every single day worrying over the slightest thing? Have you ever felt as though your heart is bursting out of your chest? Do you tend to catastrophize every situation in your life? Do you have irrational fears? If you said yes to at least two of those questions then…congratulations! You may have an anxiety disorder.

You must be thinking, congratulations? I’m miserable!

But I congratulate you because recognizing and admitting you are struggling with a mental health issue is the first step towards dealing with it and feeling better.

We need to start acknowledging anxiety for what it is so we can eliminate the stigma around it. 

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in Mexico, affecting 14.3% of the population. To put that into context, there are more people living with anxiety in our country than there are people living with diabetes, yet we rarely hear about those in mental distress. Having an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and crippling at the best of times – add people calling you crazy or helpless and society judging you and things can become much worse.

Since feeling anxious is common, anxiety isn’t often thought of as a mental health issue. I believe that this is where the problem originates. Anxiety is real and in Mexico it is still underestimated. Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and 14 – 20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week? If not, it’s not your fault: too often mental health is put on the back burner and seen as less important than physical health.

If you’ve experienced anxiety and wondered why it happens, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including Social Phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and many others.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment. If you are suffering, don’t be afraid to seek help or counseling. You may think you are alone and that no one will understand what you’re going through, but by opening up to people close to you and receiving the treatment you deserve, we will all be one step closer to breaking the stigma around anxiety. If you sense that someone close to you might be suffering, approach them in a way that makes it feel safe for them to open up to you.

It might sound like a cliché but it really is true: you are not alone. Speak up.