If friendship has been on my mind lately, so too has been the issue of my own mental well-being, and that of others during a time of year when depression may visit. Of course, this is also the busy season for many – trying to close out year-end projects and rev up for the holidays. The result is stress, and possibly, the blues.
Whatever the time of year, I recognize when I slip into gloomier moods, and I generally understand the circumstances that trigger them. But many assume that depression, whether mild and situational or severe and clinical, is a first world problem.
That isn’t the case.
Most of us have experienced depression at one time or another, and some battle it throughout their lives. If we’re fortunate, we have someone to turn to in order to diagnose its severity and determine the best course of action to follow.
Training Peers to Treat Depression
An article in The Times caught my eye a few days back. “A Depression-Fighting Strategy That Could Go Viral” addresses the ability of peer-to-peer connection to ease sorrow. Specifically, Tina Rosenberg’s reporting touches on several programs that offer encouraging results in Uganda, Pakistan and India.
Depression is the most important thief of productive life for women around the world, and the second-most important for men. We sometimes imagine it is a first-world problem, but depression is just as widespread, if not more so, in poor countries, where there is a good deal more to be depressed about.
Unfortunately, stigma remains when it comes to mental health issues.
Ms. Rosenberg continues:
We know how to treat depression. What we don’t know yet is how to make effective treatment cheap, culturally appropriate, convenient and non-stigmatizing…
Depression Spells Stigma
Even in the U.S., in many circles, seeking talk therapy is still looked at askance. In addition, it can be prohibitively expensive for many. Medication is often advisable and advised for depression, but that, too, may not be an option for all who need it. Nor is it an ultimate solution when psychological or situational issues that drive depression need airing, and the process of talking and being heard is, in itself, deeply comforting.
Referencing several models of peer training in her article, a study in Goa, India, targeted at helping new mothers deal with depression, offered impressive results with a relatively small amount of training provided to others in the community. Peer counselors are not a replacement for mental health professionals but rather, a complementary mechanism under certain circumstances.
Surely, the stigma is lessened at least in part because the assistance comes from one’s peers – women helping women.
Do We Realize the Importance of Our Human Interactions?
I find myself realizing how we take for granted our routine interactions with a neighbor, a child, another parent at the playground, or an old friend with whom we visit online. Have we forgotten the ways in which we heal each other through the simplest exchanges of compassion or the pleasure of a familiar face?
Ms. Rosenberg notes the remarkable outcomes of Strong Minds, a program in Uganda:
A week after the sessions ended, 94 percent of the women no longer had depression… Oddly, the control group also improved… 33 percent no longer were depressed… But Strong Minds’ goal of eliminating depression in 75 percent of patients was achieved earlier, in week 12.
Amazing, don’t you think? Also intriguing – the control group’s improvement. Not to oversimplify, but might we observe that social engagement that is either neutral or positive, in general, tends to have a positive impact?
Isolation Leaves Us Vulnerable
Isolation is an issue that many writers face, as well as others who work predominantly on their own. I’ve had my own love-hate affair with solo time, and it is a double-edged sword: The need to be alone in order to work collides with an absence of necessary social interaction.
When the isolation goes on too long, it’s easy to lose touch with social skills, or feel less comfortable “out in the world.” We may become less aware that whatever ups and downs we’re going through are a normal part of the sometimes bumpy rhythm of everyday life.
As I note the ability for peers to help ease depression in the studies Ms. Rosenberg describes, I am reminded that we should reach out to others to help, and be willing to ask for help when we’re feeling especially vulnerable.
Depression: You Are Not Alone
I believe it is important to remember that you – we – are not alone in having dark periods. We may wrestle with grief after the death of a loved one, with problems on the job, with addictive behaviors or substances, with children whose decisions disappoint or worry, with loss of jobs and ensuing financial stress, with marital breakups and subsequent divorce, with health issues of our own or health issues of a family member. These are only a few of the reasons for depression that come to mind.
Getting a friend or loved one who is depressed to a physician or mental health professional is essential.
Ultimately, medications may help, talk therapy may help, and those closest to us can help or hurt. Likewise, other contributing factors are stress level, exercise, sufficient sleep, the presence or absence of chronic pain.
I am heartened to learn that this global human challenge can be significantly improved in some instances through peer training and subsequent treatment, and it seems to me that this approach could have widespread applicability. I urge you to read the article in entirety, as I am reminded that we are all capable of extraordinary community, in particular, what Ms. Rosenberg refers to as the “natural social networks” of women. This is an uplifting bit of news in a season that thrives on precisely that.
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