What cancer and depression have in common

We all know what’s it’s like to have a bad day, go through a difficult time or have the blues. These are rough patches in our lives, but we’re able to get through them with support from people around us, and perhaps the greatest solace is hope. Tough times are more bearable knowing that brighter times are ahead. So when someone you love is experiencing depression, all that person needs from you are a few reminders about the good things he or she has and that they’ll eventually snap out of it, right? Even with the very best intentions, this approach couldn’t be more wrong.

Clinical depression is a far different beast than the ordinary rough spell we all experience from time to time. It’s not something someone “just gets over.” Sometimes depression is triggered by external circumstances, but sometimes it’s not. It’s a vastly different experience than a bad few days, nor is it like a cold that passes after a few miserable weeks. In fact, depression has a lot more in common with a heart condition or cancer that can only be addressed by treatment.

“There’s a widespread misconception that clinical depression is just that the person is having a hard day, and they’ll snap out of it on their own, but they probably won’t. Depression is a lot more than that,” Bill Howell, Director of Youth and Family Services at Central Wyoming Counseling Center, said. There are physiological causes that impact synapses and nerves in the brain that can result in feeling like there’s no hope ahead.

It can be difficult to know the difference between someone who is going through a bad time and someone who is facing clinical depression, but Howell says to look for frequency. If a loved one exhibits patterns of behavior rather than a few isolated incidents, it could be depression. Have you observed a pattern of sadness, hopelessness or prolonged changes in behavior or work habits? If any of these characteristics last longer than a couple weeks, Howell says it might be time to approach that person about depression.

Obviously, this is a delicate subject that most of us aren’t comfortable with, especially since mental illness is so widely misunderstood. Know that you’re coming from a place of love, so the person will appreciate your concern, but Howell has a few pieces of advice on things you should and shouldn’t say during this potentially difficult conversation.

  • Create a safe environment for the person to confide in you. Be open to listening before talking. Let your loved one take the lead when he or she feels comfortable talking about it. Assure the individual that they’re not going through this alone.
  • Validate what the person is feeling. Don’t oversimplify what he or she is going through or tell them they shouldn’t feel this way. This person doesn’t want to go through this and “snapping out of it” isn’t possible. After all, you wouldn’t expect someone with cancer to get over it.
  • This individual does have people in his or her life that care enough to notice there’s something wrong; you initiating the conversation is proof. So while there are positives, all the blessings in the world aren’t going to change the chemistry in the brain that is causing depression. Try not to minimize the situation into a math equation where good is greater than bad.
  • Avoid using “you” statements, and use “I” statements instead. For example: “I’ve noticed you’ve been sleeping more lately, and I’ve seen a few other things that I want to talk you about.” This makes the conversation feel less like a confrontation.
  • Reiterate that while you want to help and provide support, you’re not an expert. By talking about what you’ve seen and observed, suggest that he or she see a professional. Central Wyoming Counseling Center has Open Access hours for evaluation with compassionate, capable experts. Suggest he or she visit cwcc.us or call 237.9583.
  • Ask more than once. While there is a delicate balance between being pushy and being reticent, your loved one will appreciate that you care enough to keep noticing sadness. Read cues. You know the individual well enough to know that he or she is struggling, so bring it up again when you think the time is right.

Finally, educate yourself on local resources for depression. Central is the right outlet for your loved one, but you need information and support, as well. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, has a local chapter that will empower you to be a champion for mental health and an advocate for your loved ones. Learn more about NAMI.

If you ever feel that your loved one is suicidal or is in danger of harming themselves, call 911.

However you choose to approach someone about depression, know that your love and concern will be your friend or family member’s overwhelming takeaway from the conversation, as long as you don’t minimize the condition. “It’s important to be careful about what you say, but you should always say something. Kindness goes a long way,” Howell said.

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