Today is world mental health day. I have been quite open about my own battles with mental health, a result of my Hashimoto’s. In fact I received the diagnosis for depression six months before they identified that it was actually a symptom of thyroid disease. In my experience depression is a horrible condition.
One thing that always struck me, when I was explaining depression to someone who had never had it, was the assumption that you are just really, really sad. The reality is far worse. It isolates you and physically drains you. It removes the joy of life and pulls you into a black hole. Things can seem hopeless. I actually rarely felt truly sad, but rather I often felt emotionless. To be honest I just didn’t have the spark or energy for any form of emotions.
This physical factor is also something people do not always comprehend. It is a mental condition after all – why would it have a physical impact? In my case the physical side was compounded by my failing thyroid, but many other people with depression concur that it is exhausting. I once had a physician explain to me that just like stress can make you feel physically tired, so too can mental health conditions. The fact is that every day is a struggle and you have to use so much energy just to function that it exhausts you. All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball in bed. Some days even watching TV was too much effort.
I was very fortunate that my depression was a symptom of another disease that got diagnosed. All too often depression is diagnosed as a standalone disease, with little investigation into whether it is actually just a symptom. Many autoimmune symptoms mimic depression, for example extreme fatigue, brain fog, or weight gain. Whilst it is great that depression is now treated seriously as a condition we also must not become complacent in continuing to explore what has caused the depression. In some case therapy and medication are all that is needed. In others though treating the depression may have no impact on the causal factor, such as an underlying autoimmune disease.
This is where social media can have a real impact. As in my case it was through social media and information I found online, that I was able to push for a proper diagnosis. Patients talking to each other can also help identify that there may be other symptoms not linked to depression that have been overlooked, such as hair loss or dry skin. The act of engaging with others in the same predicament, for example through a social media group, can really help in getting to grips with the disease.
One group, however, that is often overlooked when it comes to depression, and who often have limited access to online resources, are the elderly. Depression in the elderly is often seen as something that just happens and is part of getting old. Further compounding the issue for the elderly is that physical exercise, one of the best things for depression, is much harder if not impossible.
Looking at many of the resources for depression they often talk about the importance of exercise and diet. However this is often more tailored for the younger generations. Whilst I found a 1km daily swim worked wonders there is no way my 85 year old father could manage that. In fact not being able to do things anymore can further drive the feeling of uselessness that is fuelling depression in the elderly.
And so on this Mental Health Day I would ask that you all spare a thought for people struggling with depression. In particular though consider elderly friends, relatives or neighbours. What can we do to help them deal with this miserable condition. Perhaps helping them to go for a daily 10 minute walk or making them feel useful again because they still have so much to give. Even just being there to listen and spend time with them can help.
Depression is a black hole but it need not be a lonely place. That feeling of having someone who cares can make all the difference. And let us all be a little kinder to each other, because you never know if someone is struggling with depression. A little kindness costs nothing but can change the world for that person.