Just before I began to write this article on September 10th a facebook friend posted a reminder that it was World Suicide Prevention Day. October, the crimson and gold gateway to fall, is also home to Mental Illness Awareness Week, October 3rd to the 9th. The omens are clear; it’s time for Jack to write about depression, the most prevalent, most lethal of mood disorders.
Approximately 8% of adults, nearly three million Canadians, will experience major depression at some time in their lives. Most often it affects people in their working years, between the ages of 24 and 44. Worldwide, major depression is the leading cause of years lived with disability. The costs to society are severe. Under the headline, “Mental illness costs economy $ 51 billion per year in sick days,” The Vancouver Sun recently cited research results indicating that mental illness is linked to more lost work days in Canada than any other chronic condition. Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are the mental illnesses that appear most in the Canadian workforce, with each case leading to an average 65-day leave and $ 18,000 bill. Depression can shatter the lives of people and their families when a loved one mysteriously stops functioning. A person can become so withdrawn they simply can’t get out of bed. Feeling isolated from family, friends and co-workers and unable to seek help, 15% of people with severe depression commit suicide.
Symptoms include feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless, sleeping more or less than usual, eating more or less than usual, having difficulty concentrating or making decisions, loss of interest in taking part in activities, decreased sex drive, avoiding other people, overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief, feeling unreasonably guilty, loss of energy, feeling very tired, and thoughts of death or suicide. Many people who are seriously depressed wait too long to seek treatment or they may not seek treatment at all. They may not realize that they have a treatable illness, or they may be concerned about getting help because of the negative attitudes held by society towards this type of illness.
One of my life goals is to try to erase the stigma of mental illness.
Sleep disruption is a key symptom to monitor in yourself or others. My pattern was to go to bed as soon as I could because I dreaded the effort needed to look as if I could still handle tasks like brushing my teeth. I escaped into sleep immediately only to wake at 2:00 a.m. to lie awake trembling until the alarm. If your sleep is not normal for two weeks and there are no obvious stressors in your life such as exams or a personal crisis, go to your doctor and tell the truth.
The sooner treatment is started the better and the good news is that the standard treatment for depression, a combination of medication and psychotherapy, has an 80% success rate. This column is not the place for a full discussion of depression but the information is at our fingertips. The Canadian Mental Health Association (www.cmha.ca) and The Canadian Mood Disorders Society (www.mooddisorderscanada.ca) provide excellent resources and links to local branches across the country.
My depression has an African dimension. It struck first just after I arrived at Bawku Secondary School in north eastern Ghana as a young, idealistic and very nervous teacher. I thought it was culture shock. Help came. I was transferred to less isolated Tamale where expatriate and Ghanaian friends and my young central nervous system led to a rebound and some of the best experiences of my life. It struck again when I was a middle aged husband, father, idealistic anxious teacher and mortgage holder and the overdose almost killed me. Two hospitalizations and twenty-three years of ongoing psychiatric treatment later my life flows with purpose, energy and joy.
Please take care of yourself.