Depression: More than a Feeling

-Eli

As a recent high school graduate, I often take a trip down memory lane and fondly look back on the good times I’ve had such as school dances, attending sporting events, running at the state meet a few times, and just enjoying my friends and fellow classmates. I feel I really made the most out of my high school experience, but there is one thing that I regret. I wish I would have gotten to know my buddy Jake better than I did.

Jake was one of the top 10 swimmers in the entire country. He was the best male athlete that our school had ever seen. He was an amazing guy. We had classes together my sophomore year as well as PE together my senior year. Jake was the most likable guy in the school. He had a radiant personality and was always flashing a smile or cracking a joke. He was kind to everyone.

Although we had only hung out outside of school a few times, we always enjoyed each other’s company. In fact, he was my pickle ball partner in PE my senior year, although neither of us were particularly good. We had had several conversations over free period about the trials and tribulations of our respective sports (swimming and running), their differences, and their lack of notoriety compared to more popular sports. I can only imagine this was more frustrating for Jake, considering his extreme level of success. Although this didn’t stop him from receiving some recognition as he dressed up as Michael Phelps for character day, adorning himself in his arsenal of state and national medals that he had collected since he was crowned a state champion his freshmen year as well as the smallest speedo he could find. This attire only lasted for about 30 minutes until he was spotted by my principal and chased down the hallway much to the amusement of the rest of the student body. He had an overwhelming sense of love for the school and the community, which was evident in his raucous participation in the crowd during all of our home basketball and football games. Everybody loved Jake.

On January 2nd, 2015, Jake decided to take his own life. He had been fighting a battle with depression, and had gotten tired of fighting. This was a shock to almost everyone, save his very best friends, family, and some school administrators. My school’s athletic director, who is responsible for dealing with tragedies such as this said, “I think people were shocked initially because when you think of the stereotypes of people who commit suicide, you probably wouldn’t put him in that category, I mean he was a good student, had a good family, was a good athlete, and had a scholarship waiting for him. That isn’t typically the kid who you would think would do something like that.” Similar thoughts were on the hearts and minds of all who knew Jake. Everyone was lost and confused.

As I attended his funeral and looked upon the thousands of others that attended as well I couldn’t help but ask myself the same question that I’m sure so many others asked themselves ; “Could this have been avoided?” Anyone who remotely knew Jake would like to think they could have done something. As time went on and I continued to think about the tragic case of my lost friend, I wondered about how many others had dealt with similar terrible mental illnesses.

It turns out that this is a societal problem. In 2013 alone there were over 40,000 suicides in the United States. There must be a change. In the words of the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, “There are many problems, but I think there is a solution to all these problems; it’s just one, and it’s education.” Through education on the causes of depression, the severity of clinical depression and the difference from short periods of unhappiness, and the complex treatment of depression we can prevent these tragic situations like the one with Jake. Saving the life of just one individual through educating the public and raising awareness of the crippling effects of depression will change a countless number of lives.

The Seriousness of Depression

It is paramount to understand that depression is much more than just a sense of unhappiness. Depression is “a psychoneurotic or psychotic disorder marked especially by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration, a significant increase or decrease in appetite and time spent sleeping, feelings of dejection and hopelessness, and sometimes suicidal tendencies.” (Merrian-Webstr.com). Hopefully by educating our nation from a young age so that they better understand that depression is a legitimate disease and not just an emotional state we can prevent terrible things like what happened to Jake.

The first step to making a change and solving a problem is to acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place. Those who are depressed often are afraid to seek out help because of the lack of knowledge and the societal stigmas that surround depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the longer someone waits to be evaluated or treated for mental health illnesses, the greater the impairment can be in the future. The NIMH urges everyone to become educated on depression in order to make reaching out for help easier for those who suffer from this illness.

Being upset over the trials and tribulations of life is something that everyone has experienced at one time or another, but actual clinical depression is much different. Our nation needs to be proactive instead of reactive. In cases such as the death of Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, and

many other prominent figures of society, the nation has risen to the occasion and broadcasted on major news sources the severity of depression. After the initial shock of death is over, however, nothing more is said about those who were lost, and all measures of education and awareness are no longer enacted. We need to educate our country, starting in schools, on depression and how severe it actually is.

Individuals that do not suffer from firsthand experience with depression often have a skewed perception on what the illness actually is. Unlike physical diseases such as cancer or heart disease there are few obvious outward signs of depression. While other illnesses are paired with obvious symptoms such as a heart attack or coughing up blood, the signs and symptoms of depression are much more subtle. In order to be preemptive and combat suicide in our nation we must also educate individuals form a young age on the signs and symptoms of depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health signs and symptoms of depression include restlessness and irritability, lack of concentration, feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in hobbies and activities previously enjoyed, insomnia or oversleeping, overeating or appetite loss, or thoughts of suicide.

Many of these signs and symptoms would be difficult to identify, particularly if you haven’t been previously educated on them. If I, or perhaps others would have been more knowledgeable on these signs of depression perhaps things with my friend Jake could have ended differently, and by that I mean not ended at all. Although it was known by some of Jake’s closest friends what he was dealing with, a vast majority of my school was completely oblivious. Maybe Jake preferred it that way, but anything that could have been done to change what actually happened should have been done. If our school would have been better educated on depression and suicide perhaps that necessary change would have happened.

In an excerpt from the article “Why I Didn’t Kill Myself,” Tom Doran, a writer for The Independent who has struggled with clinical depression, writes:

“I am a worthless excuse for a human being. I annoy, depress or try the patience of everyone I know and repulse everyone I don’t. My writing, the nearest thing to a talent I possess, is superficial and amateurish. I let down everyone who believes in me and always do the wrong thing, morally and practically. I look terrible. I’m hugely overweight, dress badly and everything about me, from the way I walk to the look in my eyes, radiates a disturbing aura of strangeness, of wrongness, that causes everyone I pass on the street or share a bus with to stare then look away in disgust.”

This upsetting firsthand account is just a sample of the thoughts and feelings of one suffering from clinical depression. Tom Doran doesn’t just struggle with sadness from time to time. As evident in this article he goes through periods of time where he actually hates himself. Depression rots and warps the mind into thinking these terrible thoughts that are not true at all.

Causes of Depression

Depression is cause by a variety of factors, most of which are not within the control of an individual struggling with depression. The National Institute of Mental Health states “depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.” Just as a greater likelihood of heart disease can be inherited through genetics and affected by biological factors, so can depression.

A common conclusion that is drawn when it comes to individuals dealing with depression is to blame it purely on brain chemistry. However, according to author Hal Arkowitz of Scientific America, “Chemical imbalance is sort of last-century thinking. It’s much more complicated than that.” Arkowitz later goes on to say, “Among the problems correlated with the disease are irregularities in brain structure and function, disturbances in neural circuitry, and various psychological contributions, such as life stressors.” It is very difficult to pinpoint one particular cause of an individual’s depression due to the wide range of aspects that could be causing problems in the brain.

This is one of the many reasons that it is absurd to think that an individual such as Jake dealing with the day-to-day struggles of clinical depression is just simply “sad.” To an outside observer Jake had it all, but just as cancer eats away at a person and sickens them physically, Jake’s depression was eating away at him mentally. Due to a culmination of the previously listed factors to blame for depression it was difficult for Jake to realize how much he really had going for him. Instead he was enveloped in a terrible false sense of aloneness and self-depreciation. By educating the public on not just only the dangers of depression as a legitimate disease, but also the causes of depression we can work towards a society is preemptive to awful happenings such as suicide. Education on the crippling affects of depression is necessary to prevent tragedies such as suicide. This needs to be done not just in schools, but in the media as well.

Depression in the Media

The passive way in which our society treats depression is clearly evident in daily life. Careless comments such as “I’m so depressed” when someone’s favorite TV show is cancelled or they receive a poor mark on a paper is something that is heard constantly. These statements make light of depression, and make the plight of sufferers seem less valid. Our education system and government needs to take the same hard line with depression as they have with smoking. The government has flooded the media with constant advertisements and widespread campaigns against smoking such as the following video:

Advertisements such as this have raised public awareness to the hazards of smoking and because of this it has become much less of a health problem than it previously was. to the CDC smoking rates among adults have steadily dropped from over 42% in 1965 to a mere 19% in 2011. The drop in smokers in the United States is largely due to government policy and control of media. This is evident by the government’s ban on smoking ads in 1965 followed by a ruling by President Clinton in 1996 that allows the FDA to more heavy regulate the use of Tobacco (Ash.org.) The government needs to approach mental diseases in the same manor that it approached smoking back in the mid to late 20th century and even now.

Advertisements purely created to raise awareness on depression are crafted in a much different manner. These ads are not government funded, but instead developed by individuals or small, nonprofit independent groups. The following is a great example of one of these advertisements:

As you can see the government funded smoking ad is much different from the independent depression ad. The quality of the smoking ad is much higher. This difference however is minute in comparison to the fact that one airs on TV frequently while the other has only aired on YouTube and received a little less than 8,000 views. The disparities in quality, funding, and viewership send a clear message that depression is not taken nearly as seriously as it should be as a dangerous, and potentially deadly, mental illness should be.

One obvious way that our culture is inadequately educated on the woes of depression is through what we see on TV. Fortunately, in a media age like the one that we live in it is easy to spread a message and attempt to cause change. However, the problem with the media is that it becomes fixated on a problem for a short period of time, and then quickly moves on to another issue as if the previous one had never occurred at all. For example, the terrible suicide of Robin Williams swept the nation from a media perspective for a short period of time. For a brief moment suicide and depression were in the national spotlight. This flash in the pan of national media attention is not enough to complete the necessary changes to the thinking of society. For example, when you search “Robin Williams Suicide News” the only stories are from the month that he committed suicide. The media spotlight is not enough to make a change unless it is lasting, which is very rare in the age we live in. For example, there have been several instances of police brutality over the past few years that the media has really grabbed on to. With so many occurrences that have nationally attracted media attention it is constantly in the spotlight.

The societal shift in the United States against police brutality as caused by the constant media attention has created an elevated awareness of the trespasses against basic human rights. The problem with this kind of reaction is simply that. It is a reaction to a terrible event that could have potentially been avoided. National media must be used to educate and raise awareness on depression in order to be proactive and avoid devastating events like the one that happened with Jake.

Often times when the media reports on someone who has committed suicide, the media focuses not on depression itself, but another factor of that person’s life. For example, Lelah Alcorn was a transgender girl who committed suicide because of the lack of support of her parents on her gender identity. When Lelah committed suicide on December 28th, 2014, the nation rose in support of transgender issues, but did not say anything about the depression that was the underlying cause of her suicide. Although anti-bullying campaigns and awareness for transgender and other LBGT teens is very important, the media needs also to put a focus on depression, the direct cause of teens such as Lelah’s tragic suicides.

Lelah Alcorn

Movies and TV shows often exhibit damaging depictions of mental illness as well. According to mental health researcher Cheryl K. Olson, the opening scene of the drama Wonderland shows a man who suffers from schizophrenia and depression go on a shooting spree in Times Square, and then later stab a pregnant physician who was trying to help him in the stomach. In the following scene, a man yells “I am not circumcised”, lifts up his shirt in a room full of people, and continues to make strange motions, to which is doctor replies “that’s what we call manic-depression, bi-polar disorder” as if being depressed explains the mans strange behavior.

The media often depicts a dramatized and stereotypical portrayal of those with mental illnesses. In July 2013, a Florida woman was reported to have set her son’s dog on fire. The reporter who was broadcasting the news ended the news segment with the statement that the woman had been recently depressed. Subtle, yet insinuating remarks like these creates an inaccurate depiction of mental illness to the general public, and also negatively affects those who do suffer from mental illness. Other movies such as “Heathers”

portray depression as normal teen behavior, and that teens with mental illness are going through a phase. This type of attitude subdues the seriousness of depression, and undermines the feelings of those who are depressed.

The media could be very helpful in the nation wide battle against depression, but it is within the schools that the largest changes need to be made. By educating middle school and high school students on the truths about depression we can create a more open atmosphere about the topic for young people across the nation. At my high school there were two weeks spent on sexual education, but only a matter of days on mental illnesses. Similarly to how the societal norms of being able to be open about one’s sexual orientation have been changed, they need to be changed for depression. It is imparitive to educated youth on the dangers of suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide rates have been on the rise since 2000. This is a trend that can be stopped through education.

Making a Change Through Education

Throughout my entire high school and middle school experience I was only taught about depression one time. That was in my freshmen year health class and it was very briefly skimmed over. I had a great freshmen health teacher. The problem was not with him, but instead with the curriculum. Similarly to how the government has required rape-safety seminars that all incoming college freshmen have to attend it should also require education on depression starting even before freshmen year of high school. Depression is treated as something that needs to be hidden away from others, often times because individuals not dealing with depression have no idea what it is like. The mitigation of depression is wracking our nation, making it difficult for people suffering to reach out for help, and keeping those not suffering in the dark about the consequences of an untreated mental illness.

The Suicide Awareness Voices of Education program, also known as SAVE, is a program developed by GlobalCloud that has created a program for high school students in order to educate and raise awareness about depression. According to SAVE their mission is “to prevent suicide through public awareness and education, reduce stigma, and serve as a resource to those touched by suicide.” SAVE offers a curriculum known as LEADS (Linking Education for Awareness of Depression and Suicide) that comes included with CD and teacher’s guide that costs $125.00 for each student. It also includes a post-test should a teacher wish to assess the knowledge of his or her students following the unit. This program was developed through volunteers working with students in high schools in Minnesota and has been distributed and used in 855 schools affecting over 21,000 children in 15 different states as well as Canada and Switzerland. The cost of purchasing materials for a classroom of 30 at the given unit price would be over $3,700.00.

In research conducted by SAVE on their LEADS program it was found that education on depression was increased. Students were able to break down many of the social stigmas about depression. According to their research there was a 28% increase in an assessment where students had to identify true and false statements regarding depression. Another vastly important improvement brought about by the LEADS program was a rise in acknowledgement of depression as a medical illness. This jumped drastically from 58% to 83%.

Once the stigmas surrounding depression were rid of, youth were more willing to seek help if they or someone they knew was depressed. LEADS caused them to be more educated on treatment, and made resources for depression more accessible. Although SAVE itself recognizes that the LEADS program is not perfect, they are constantly working on changes to improve the already successful program. In order to build on the success of the curriculum, efforts are being made to make sure the format of the program is best suited for each individual classroom. Not only this, but training opportunities for teachers are opening up in order to ensure the teachers implement the program in the most successful way possible, and the LEADS curriculum is being tailored to include what makes the most direct impact on youth, such as the identification of suicide prevention resources.

Although the price for this program seems expensive, I think it, or a similar program like it, should be required by national law across our nation. I personally would pay that $3,700.00, and so would every single student in my school if that would produce even a minute chance at preventing something like what happened to Jake ever occurring at our school again. Families and friends of those that have been lost through depression and suicide would all say the exact same thing. You cannot put a price tag on a human life. Although education of our nation’s children is not a surefire way to prevent all suicides from happening, it is worth a shot. If through education and raising awareness about suicide and depression across the nation we could save just one single human life, the money spent everywhere would be worth it.

Depression is a crippling mental illness that tragically affected my friend Jake. But this doesn’t have to be the case for the future. Through education in schools with organizations like SAVE and advertisement campaigns on TV, we can start to raise awareness and make a change. After I received the news about Jake, I sat in shock next to my sister, who is a year younger than me, as we proceeded to shake our heads in disbelief. Our school set up the library as a place that all of the students could gather and grieve together. It was a Saturday night, but over a third of our school still showed up to give and receive support over such an unbelievable tragedy. A simple emotion was not responsible for doing that to an entire school, an entire community. What was responsible was a terrifying disease that ravages the mind. Our nation needs to step up and educate ourselves so that we can overcome this disease.

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