I had picked up the phone to help a worried parent, listening as a distressed mother recounted how depression had taken a stranglehold on her son. She had ended the conversation in the hope that just getting him to the phone would make a difference.
I heard the echo of footsteps receding and the shuffling of the receiver as she passed the phone to her son.
A full and painful silence followed - a silence which was far more than the mere absence of words. Talking to this stifled young man and feeling for his response was like trying to speak down a wind tunnel.
But I said one thing that sunk in.
The young man on the other end of the phone had finished school and had dropped out of uni. His days must have felt lengthy, empty - and meaningless.
Sylvia Plath describes this state in her novel The Bell Jar:
“I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes... I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.”
" I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air ."
My faltering and painfully extended conversation with the depressed young man stayed with me as I left work, haunting my sleep and tempering my morning.
It was a strange sensation of re-feeling some of the worst of my own struggles with the black dog.
In my 20s, I had suffered from debilitating depression. Although to some extent it seemed to come out of nowhere, there were triggers.
I had finished my master's degree and had come back from an extended European trip with my classmates. I had no money, no job, no prospects and a relationship I valued had ended.
The feeling was one of emptiness and shame. A black terror that descended without warning and was threatening and ever-present, despite my attempts to distract myself with visits from friends or outings. It was a vortex into which I expected to fall at any moment.
It also felt like it was inside me.
It was hard to escape and I knew I couldn't do it alone.
Fortunately, I found a good therapist and recovered enough to start to enjoy life and reach out to others. Eventually I came to a place where I could experience joy, explore my creativity, create fullfilling relationships, and make good decisions for my own future. It wasn't easy, but the journey taught me to be more compassionate and understanding towards others struggling with mental health issues.
Depression is not a joke.
Nor is it the same thing as feeling sad or melancholy. It is a serious state of being unable to enjoy life, to connect, plan, relax or create.
People who are depressed struggle to find meaning in life and to understand their purpose. They often feel isolated and alone. Their pain makes them feel like they would be a burden to others - a quality of depression and the depressed state which means that depressed people are unlikely to seek help. Sometimes people with depression can feel ashamed and can lash out at those closest to them. They can also be irritable and angry, rather than allowing their vulnerability to come to the surface.
Depression can destroy relationships - and take away hope .
Telling a depressed person to pull their socks up or get out of bed is like telling someone with cancer that everything will be OK.
It just doesn't work.
Here is some information on what to look out for in young people:
Changes to feelings or emotions:
feeling unhappy, moody and irritable/snappy for more than two weeks. Some people also have feelings of emptiness or numbness
no longer enjoying things that used to be enjoyable
feeling worthless or guilty a lot of the time
feeling like everything has become ‘too hard’.
Changes to thoughts:
negative thoughts about themselves, the world and the future
having a hard time concentrating and making decisions, or remembering things
having thoughts of death or suicide.
feeling tired most of the time
low energy and motivation
having trouble sleeping (getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up in the morning)
loss of interest in food or eating too much, leading to weight loss or gain
aches and pains that can’t be explained.
How Can Therapy Help Young People Who are Depressed?
Depression is a pretty serious problem. Whilst it is not something that can be cured quickly, there is good evidence to suggest that it can be helped through therapy.
Getting someone who is depressed to come to therapy can seem like an uphill battle, but it is worth the effort.
A depressed young person may be reluctant to talk about what is going on for them. If they could easily talk about their issues, they probably would not have become depressed in the first place. In many cases they will have overwhelming feelings that are too big or scary for words.
Often, depression will occur when a young person is unable to articulate or “feel” the underlying feelings that are part of the depression.
In order to avoid experiencing frightening feelings, people who are vulnerable to depression will (unconsciously) numb themselves and end up unable to experience anything - including positive emotions like joy and happiness. Their lives will for a time, become limited and insular and they may seem unapproachable.
Therapy can help by gently exploring what is going on for the depressed person.
Slowly understanding, releasing and processing the feelings will help you to understand yourself and be more comfortable with difficult feelings. The empathetic presence of a therapist will allow you to bring challenging feelings to the surface. The therapist will help you get in touch with these feelings and will also help you regulate the contact so that you are not overwhelmed. At times it will be difficult, but you can be confident that an experienced therapist will “contain” the space so that the feelings will not be more than you can bear.
Therapy for depression will help you get in touch with what is really going on for you and encourage you to have more compassion for your flaws and vulnerabilities. With time, you will start to reach out and trust those close to you with the difficult feelings that underlie the depression.
Eventually you will get to a place where you can allow others to comfort you.
As you heal, you will be able to better manage your relationships and enjoy the company of those you care about.
As the therapy progresses you will be able to take up the things you used to enjoy, start going out again, see your friends and go back to school or work.