Two young men.
The first young man is 19, a constant joker who enjoys nothing else than making people laugh and bringing joy to those around him. He is big into robotics and the challenge of solving problems. He also helps his close friends solve their problems by being their go-to guy when they need a shoulder to cry on, or simply someone to listen.
The second young man is also 19. He has a lot of social anxieties and gets depressed. He often lies in bed for days, shutting out TVs, phones, and even food. He’ll make excuses to not go out with friends. His mind is burdened with such an unbreakable cycle of negative thinking that the best part of his day is falling asleep, and the worst part is waking up.
The first young man’s name is Lucas.
Last October, Lucas took his own life.
He was the son of Sam Fiorella, a close friend to both myself and Danny Brown. Danny says,
There’s got to be something missing. For someone to seem so happy all the time and always willing to help others, but not themselves. It just doesn’t add up.
I won’t pretend to have any easy answers, but I can offer some insight on the topic of depression.
That’s because the second young man I describe above is me, nearly half my lifetime ago.
The Dangerous Compartmentalization of Depression
Since that age I’ve gotten better. A lot better.
After years of keeping things bottled up, I finally was able to reach out for help, and got it.
The question is, why did it take me so long? Why is it so hard for people to reach out for help?
I think it starts by the way we frame the discussion of mental illness. Specifically, what we mean when we say mental illness.
We compartmentalize mental issues as being exclusive from physical issues. This mind/body dualism school of thought dates back to Enlightenment thinkers such as Rene Descartes.
And I think it’s bullshit.
Our mental state, or consciousness, is a biological phenomenon just like any other part of our body.
Notable modern philosopher John Searle, who would agree with me on this point, says:
It is true that [our brain] has special features, most notably the feature of subjectivity, but that does not prevent consciousness from being a higher-level feature of the brain in the same way that digestion is a higher-level feature of the stomach, or liquidity a higher-level feature of the system of molecules that constitute our blood.
The problem with framing depression as a mental issue is that it’s reduced to something that’s “all in your head”, that it’s completely different than having a physical issue.
What we imply when we say something is “all in your head” means it doesn’t really exist, so you should be able to just work it out for yourself.
But saying that depression is something that’s “all in your head so just work it out”, is like saying cancer is “all in your body, so just exercise and it will go away”.
Depression can be physical.
The Physical Illness of Depression
Did you know that that the hippocampus is smaller in some people with a history of depression than those with none? Or that neurotransmitter or chemical imbalances in the brain is a source of depression? Other causes can include abuse, death or loss, major events, and genetics.
Do any of these things sound like they’re “just in your head”?
No, they are real. They are physical or have materialized in our physical world.
My point is, people with depression often won’t reach out for help because they believe their issues are in their head, and not something that could possibly be a natural phenomenon in human beings.
They think they are solely responsible for their problems, and are solely responsible for solving them.
I personally always felt like my feelings of depression were like some sort of character flaw, and the reason I couldn’t just break the cycle of negative, depressive thoughts was because I simply wasn’t smart enough, good enough, or normal enough.
Consequently, my poor attitude about myself just reinforced my negative thoughts, and my negative thoughts reinforced my poor attitude about myself.
And around and around we go.
So I believe that to help more people with depression we need to not only destigmatize mental illness, we need to treat it with the same care, compassion, and understanding that we would physical illness.
We need to change the conversation.
Ask yourself, why is it that we get annual physicals, but it has nothing to do with how healthy we are feeling?
Why is it that when we get injured, we can go to physiotherapy and train or rehab the injured part of our body until it gets better, but we don’t think we can do the same with our brains?
Why is it that we have cancer ribbons, campaigns, runs, and mega-fundraising campaigns, but people battling or who have battled depression or mental illness don’t benefit from an equal support system?
Cancer doesn’t discriminate, but neither does depression. It just happens, and can happen to anyone. No-one should feel guilty about getting cancer, and no-one should feel guilty about feeling depressed.
Some facts on mental illness in Canada:
- In any given year, one in five Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem.
- Nearly 4,000 Canadians die by suicide each year – an average of 11 suicides a day.
- While mental illnesses constitute more than 15% of the cost to treat disease in Canada, these illnesses receive less than 6% of health care dollars.
- Just 50% of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers that they have a family member with a mental illness, compared to 72% who would discuss a diagnosis of cancer and 68% who would talk about a family member having diabetes.
- The economic cost of mental illness in Canada is estimated at $51 billion per year. This includes health care costs, lost productivity, and reductions in health-related quality of life.
So what can we do?
Learning to Accept That It’s Normal to Not Feel Normal
Besides changing the way we look at depression, and talk about mental illness, I think another major part of the solution is early education.
Just like we have gym class to encourage fitness and home economics to teach kids how to manage a household, we need to teach them to recognize and understand the signs of depression and mental illness even before they’re old enough to get them.
In other words, set expectations and equip kids with the right tools.
Teach kids that some of them might not feel “normal”, and that this is perfectly normal. Let them know what the signs of depression might look like, feel like, and what they can do and who they can talk to. Above all, they should understand that it’s fairly common and not something to be ashamed of or run from.
It’s part of being a human being.
And it can’t be easy growing up these days. Before the internet and mobile phones, kids could at least go home at the end of the day to safety and security. Now, with Facebook, texts, Instagram, Twitter, etc., there’s seemingly nowhere to find that comfort zone.
I think it’s the responsibility of parents, educators, and even the makers of social media sites and devices to work together and find solutions for kids to safely use and participate in an online world.
With more awareness and funding for mental illness, there’s increasing hope that more can be done to uncover the specific causes of depression.
And to learn more about the causes of depression, we should also learn more about the causes of happiness, because they’re two sides of the same coin.
In the meantime, you can also help.
Lobby your MPP, MP, and school board to get proper mental health education in schools.
Perhaps even more importantly, help change the conversation about mental illness. It’s not something to run from, hide from, to be ashamed of. It’s something worth talking about.
When you experience a pain in your side for a prolonged period, you visit the doctor. You don’t even think about it, it’s automatic. Depression should be the same – when you don’t feel right, you should seek help without even thinking about it.
And if you or someone you know may be suffering, say something. Tell someone.
And if you want to talk about me about my experiences, your experiences, or anything at all, please send me an email: robert.at.op-ed.ca
Let’s make sure people like Lucas don’t have to suffer in silence any longer.
He’d like that a lot.
He’s still helping people.
A version of this post originally appeared on Danny Brown’s blog.