A young friend asked me recently about the initial signs of depression. What are they?
More importantly, he asked me about talking openly about the increasingly sad moods that are a part of his life. He is 19, in university, and is deathly afraid of the stigma that attends mental illness.
As to his first question, my initial reply was this: As people, we are blessed with a range of tempers, hysterias, sulks, and dispositions. These are what make us human. These are what make us artists, lovers, and discoverers of truth. There is nothing wrong about feeling sad for no particular reason – for short periods of time, that is.
But when there actually is a building medical issue, that issue must be recognized and dealt with. How do we identify this? Well, we must know ourselves and understand when we are feeling unusual.
The first signs of depression are subtle, and can be confused with the regular rhythms of life. This is especially true in younger people, whose moods and behavioral patterns tend to be less settled than older adults. And that is what makes the onset of depression in youth sometimes difficult to detect.
Sleep and eating are activities have their own cadences. Sometimes we have an appetite; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we sleep well; other times slumber eludes us.
But if a couple of weeks pass when these two essential functions slide into dysfunction, it is time to start paying attention. Frequently, depression can lead to excessive sleep and lethargy. As well, eating habits often change; a craving for carbohydrates is typical.
Loss of motivation is another red flag. Disinterest in the things that we normally enjoy – the loss of a sense of enjoyment or gratification – are reliable indicators that something may be amiss.
My young friend informed me that playing the guitar was a source of great happiness to him, but that he no longer derived pleasure from music. This, I felt was a pretty strong sign.
But perhaps the truest indication is a pervasive feeling of sadness, despair, and hopelessness for no reason. Again, if two weeks or so pass and the gloom has not lifted, it is certainly time to seek professional advice.
The second part of my young friend’s question, that of stigma, is a bit tougher to answer.
Stigma about mental illness comes from many sources. Fear and ignorance are the two main culprits, and they are pervasive in our culture.
For example, not a day goes by when the media will quote a police spokesman as saying something like: “There is no evidence yet that the suspect has a mental illness.”
This casual association between crime and mental illness is completely unjustified. Maybe, the suspect was just having a bad day.
In my view, it is almost always best to talk openly – to explain to those who treat folks with depression with distain or rejection that this condition is a medical one. Secrecy and isolation can only make matters worse.
But this is a difficult thing to do, and it is not for everyone – especially for young people.
Happily, in Canada we have public figures willing to talk openly about their illnesses – people like Clara Hughes.
So, for my young friend, I advised that he take consolation in Clara’s courage and know that someone everybody knows is trying to break the back of stigma.