Ewan Gillon: We must stop demonising depression

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It’s Depression Awareness Week (April 20-26) and it couldn’t come at a better time, particularly in light of the negative coverage depression has received as a result of the 
Germanwings crash last month.

Mental health charities have criticised the fact that the pilot Andreas Lubitz’s depression was consistently referred to as the reason behind his actions, despite the fact that this was an extreme case which did not at all reflect what depression is actually like. Such negativity and misunderstanding also makes it harder for people with depression to open up and discuss their experiences, for fear of being judged or seen as in some way “defective”. So, with one in five people suffering from depression at some point in their lives, why is depression still such a taboo subject?

Firstly, people with depression often don’t want to admit it – to themselves, let alone their friends and family – as depression is often seen a sign of weakness, or that they are not “coping” with life, when in fact it is a very real illness with physiological symptoms which change how the brain functions.

Secondly, those who have never experienced depression don’t understand why those who are depressed can’t just “snap out of it”, mainly due to so many of its symptoms being less visible than those associated with physical illness. However, it’s not that simple. If you have depression you look at the world very differently and it can be difficult for sufferers to deal with the associated emotions and resulting behaviours without support. Indeed, one of the common symptoms of depression is a feeling of hopelessness which can often frustrate friends and family who may feel the depressed person is not taking responsibility for their situation and actions.

This can result in a vicious circle of diminishing support from those around the depressed person, leading to heightened isolation and hopelessness, and so on. Added to this is the fact that a depressed person is more likely to behave unkindly towards themselves – for example, their diet may suffer or they may consume more alcohol or drugs in order to “self-medicate” and cope with their situation.

Finally, we are taught from a young age to control our emotions and not display our anger – the “stiff upper lip” approach. Men in particular take this through to adulthood by feeling as if they have to remain “big and strong”; when depression kicks in, they find it even harder to deal with as they are not used to talking about their feelings and feel as if they will be seen as weak and vulnerable – an uncomfortable place to be if you have always hidden or controlled your feelings and behaviour.

If you are feeling depressed, or know someone who is, the first step is facing up to the reality of your situation and ideally talking to someone about it. If you can’t speak to friends or family, consider discussing things with a therapist such as a psychologist or counsellor who can help you unravel the reasons behind your depression, as well as develop strategies to cope with daily life. It might also be worth considering some medicines prescribed by your GP.

Remember, it’s good to talk, whoever we are. By opening up to other people, you will share the burden of worry which may help to reduce your low mood and feelings of stress.

For further information and support visit www.edinburghtherapy.co.uk.

Professor Ewan Gillon is clinical director of First Psychology Edinburgh