The recent death of an individual who jumped from Suria KLCC in Kuala Lumpur suggests that depression and suicide remain prevalent in our country; perhaps made worse too by the pandemic, lockdowns and so on.
Whilst only a small minority of people who undergo depression take those fateful steps towards ending their lives, it is nevertheless true that almost everybody has experienced prolonged sadness (which borders on chronic depression). As is common in literature on mental health, we need to distinguish between everyday (or temporary or minor) depression from major (or clinical or deep) depression. The former involves garden-variety unhappiness, moodiness and sadness, but the latter includes symptoms like psychomotor retardation, vegetative conditions and even suicidal tendencies (see note 1).
What follows are my personal reflections on my own struggle with depression of the not-yet-chronic-but-still-serious kind.
As a caregiver for a family member battling schizophrenia for almost a decade — and tragedy which occurred, no less, during my doctoral studies! — I’ve suffered my fair share of damage. I have personally endured days and days whereby I can envision nothing but catastrophe and sorrow in the near future. I have succumbed to spontaneous weeping spells. And, yes, I have even had to ask for ‘under table’ anti-depressant pills from the friendly neighborhood pharmacist.
Anyway, based on my experience, I’ve gathered three thoughts on this malady:
1. It’s very hard, but not impossible to “reason” my way out of a depression
Like most folks, the first thing I ‘do’ when I get his with catastrophizing thoughts is to try to ‘think’ my way out of it. This kind of mental habit if downright inevitable; I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to.
Sometimes it works, but certainly not always.
In some cases, in fact, the mind’s continual search for that ‘knock down’ argument why it needn’t feel despair or fear has a tendency to make things worse; it becomes a 24/7 ‘spiral’ or vortex in which the mind keeps going back (over and over again) to the so-called ‘cause’ of depression.
Like how our tongues can’t help but lick (over and over again) the part of our mouth which had undergone dental surgery.
In such times, going to sleep may actually help if only to stop this non-stop psychological circling.
Still, something like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) aims to force the mind to think in certain ways in order to transform the mental reality a depressed person experiences. I’ve never undergone CBT but from what I’ve read about it the approach sounds like a more intensive form of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).
Bottom line, though, is that logical, reasonable and healthy thinking is necessary to maintain a good grip on our mental health. If you’ve been reading depressing and hopeless news all week, it may not be a bad idea to quit and read some Jane Austen or watch a comedy.
2. Depression is a symptom that not all is right with my system (duh).
This isn’t necessarily terrible news. Because like a fever, (temporary) depression could serve as a signal to get us to realize something is wrong and, thus, act.
Biologically, a fever shows we could be invaded by bacteria or viruses. Now, what could be afflicting us psychologically? Could we have been invaded by dangerous amounts of negativity, toxicity, etc.? Could our self-talk be partially culpable? Have some of our habits or vices been blatantly out of line with our values?
If a fever is (partially?) meant to kill the foreign bodies, could a depression be similarly meant to ‘target’ all the negativity or, at the very least, to force a pause in our activity so we can reflect?
In this context, I believe it’s impossible to ignore issues of morality and values, two elements which are undeniably a key component of our psychological make-up. Are there are questionable habits or practices or, ahem, ‘secret liaisons’ we should seriously consider quitting? Is there someone we should be apologising to?
The first line of Andrew Solomon’s magisterial award-winning book on depression, The Noonday Demon, goes thus: “Depression is the flaw in love.” I find that line so poignant because it highlights how the human creature isn’t merely a machine. Therefore, handling depression isn’t like fixing a car. At the heart of it, it’s about healing a soul.
And if so, then human values and principles are key ingredients in this battle. Which brings me to my third point…
3. Depression may need time to finish its “good work” in me
Telling someone facing depression to simply ‘snap out of it’ isn’t just unrealistic, it’s probably counter-productive.
The ‘snap out of it’ approach ignores the fact that there could be genuine and serious reasons why a person may remain in despair; and why simply ‘removing’ the despair without addressing the underlying cause may be harmful.
It’s somewhat paradoxical that in a society like ours which prizes and promotes ‘happiness’ so much, the rate of despair among people remains high (and possibly higher than in earlier decades). Could it be that the propaganda of, hey, “Let’s All Be Happy And Dynamic 24/7!!” is a contributing factor to depression, as such thinking seeks to ignore sources of real misery?
So perhaps my last humble recommendation towards dealing with depression is for all of us to learn a bit more patience. We may need to let the moodiness truly tell us what changes we must make, or how to be more authentic individuals.
Paradoxically, maybe we shouldn’t ‘rush’ to stamp out sadness, especially if such sadness may require time to bring about needed healing and change. “Rushing” to end a depression may be less fruitful than we think.
Note 1: I’m not at all an expert on clinical depression. I don’t believe I’ve ever suffered it (thank God). But I would say without a moment’s hesitation if you or anyone you know are undergoing serious depression, please get help straightaway.
Davies, William. 2015. The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. London: Verso.
Sapolsky, Robert. 2004. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
Solomon, Andrew. 2001. Noonday Demon: An Atlast of Depression. New York: Scribner.
Wolpert, Lewis. 2011. Malignant Sadness. London: Faber & Faber.