This year, I've lost track of the number of people I've talked to who've said something to the effect of, 'Yes, I am seeking help for my depression - I'm part of a "support group" on Facebook'; or 'yes, I am seeking help for my depression - I've got a great partner who's a huge help'.
I've also lost track of the number of people who I've had the following interaction with:
'Danny, I've done everything I can to try and recover from depression ... but nothing works. There must just be something fundamentally wrong with me. I don't think it's possible for me to be happy ...'
'I'm so sorry to hear that you've been struggling,' I'll reply. 'But can I ask, what have you done to try and recover?'
'I've tried a couple of medications over the years. I also tried seeing a therapist for a couple of sessions, but they weren't able to cure me so I stopped going.'
As a result, I've found it impossible to escape the conclusion that there is a large proportion of people with depression who, for whatever reason, aren't aware of the most effective ways to seek help for their illness. In an attempt to clarify things, I've spoken to numerous psychologists, psychiatrists and general practitioners and mental health charities to develop the following guide for those wondering how to go about seeking treatment for their illness.
If you have depression, it means that you have a chemical imbalance in your brain - a deficiency of either serotonin, dopamine, adrenalin or noradrenalin. It's an illness, and medication is used to treat depression in the same way it's used to treat physical illnesses. Whether or not you should be taking antidepressants is something that will be determined by your doctor or psychiatrist.
A note about antidepressants: Different medications are effective for different people. There are dozens of antidepressant medications available, so if you try a few and you don't find them helpful, it doesn't mean that you won't find any of them helpful. Finding the "right" medication for you can be a process - I had to try four before I found one that suited me - and when you find the one that works for you, it can make all the difference in the world.
Therapy is used for the purpose of getting to the root of what triggers your depression and then giving you techniques to manage those triggers. How good you are at managing your triggers is often the biggest factor determining whether or not you will recover from your illness.
A note about seeing a psychologist: Therapy takes time to have an impact, and if you give up after two sessions or aren't fully committed to it, then you won't get anything out of it. You have to be patient.
An additional note about seeing a psychologist: Much like with dating, there's a certain amount of "chemistry" required between a psychologist and a patient for the relationship to be successful. You have to feel comfortable opening up to them, and their style of interacting with you needs to suit you (for example, I enjoy "tough love", but most prefer a more gentle, sensitive approach to therapy). If you start seeing a psychologist and you stop because things don't feel quite right, then that doesn't mean you're "treatment resistant", or that "therapy doesn't work for you". It simply means that things didn't work out with that particularly psychologist. And in the same way you wouldn't give up on dating after one less-than-spectacular experience, you shouldn't give up on therapy, either.
The Slight Edge Principle begins with the premise that every day, we're all faced with relatively simple decision to make. Then, it goes on to say that people who achieve their goals make good simple daily decisions, because they realise that in the long run, doing so will result in them prospering. On the other hand, it states that people who don't achieve their goals don't make good simple daily decisions because at the point of making them, they either don't believe they matter, or they make excuses not to make them. As such, the crux of the Slight Edge Principle is that these simple daily decisions to matter, because compounded over time, they will either lead you to success or failure.
I think it's particularly important to pay heed to the Slight Edge Principle when you're trying to recover from depression. It's critical that you build healthy habits into your life - habits that in the short run may not yield spectacular results, but in the long run can be the difference between recovering from depression and forever being plagued by it. So in saying that, below are five healthy habits that significantly aid your recovery from depression:
a) Read self-help books
This is a fantastic practice to get yourself into - particularly if you can't afford to see a psychologist. Now, will reading 10 pages one day make a big difference to how well you can handle your depression? Probably not. But if you read 10 pages every day for a year, that's 3,650 pages - which is 10-15 books. Do you think reading 10-15 self-help books will arm you with some valuable skills to help you combat your depression? Undoubtedly.
b) Do half an hour of online therapy each day
Given that many people with depression can't afford therapy, the availability of free online therapy is something that isn't publicised anywhere near enough. There are some great programs out there run by some of the best universities in the world, and building it into your day is likely to do wonders over time. The one I recommend using is MoodGYM, which is run by the prestigious Australian National University.
c) Eat healthily
This is vital to good health - including mental health - but it's something a lot of people don't adhere to. When you're trying to recover from depression, it's critical that you eat a balanced diet, and - I can't stress this highly enough - lay off the drugs and alcohol. When it comes to substance abuse, the Slight Edge Principle is perhaps at its most applicable - if you drown your sorrows in alcohol or drugs once, then it's not the end of the world. But if you're always doing it, then it's going to have a significantly negative impact on your mental health over time. It's one of those awful habits that will forever keep you trapped in depression.
d) Do your best to get a good, regular seven- eight hours of sleep each night
It's amazing how much of a difference this can make. If getting good, regular sleep is something you struggle with, then I'd recommend learning the ins and outs of proper sleep hygiene - which your psychologist can teach you or you can read about in self-help books.
e) Exercise for 30 minutes each day
There were times when depression made me feel so exhausted that exercise was the last thing I wanted to do - but I'd always push myself to do it, because I knew that after exercising, I would feel better. Now exercising for one day may not make a huge difference, but research suggests that regular exercise can increase the level of brain serotonin and brain endorphins, both of which have "mood-lifting" properties. It's also important to note that exercise doesn't even have to be that rigorous to be effective, with studies suggesting that even a brisk walk each day can make a noticeable difference.
Like I said, you may not see a huge difference early on, but if you work these five healthy habits into your daily routine, you'll be streets ahead of where you would've been if you hadn't.
This isn't for everyone, but some people swear by it. I'd recommend giving it a try and seeing how you find it.
Over the years, I've been a part of around 15-20 support groups, and my view is this: they can be great if you use them "carefully", but if you don't, they can be very, very destructive.
If you're going to be a member of a depression support group, use it for just that - support. They can be a great place to go when you need encouragement and a place to be able to talk freely about the things you are going through. However, I think support groups (particularly those run on Facebook without the supervision of a qualified psychologist) get extremely destructive when the following starts occurring:
i. Members asking other sufferers for medical advice
This is something to talk to your doctor about, as they're the ones who've been to medical school. A mental health support group is definitely not the place to be seeking medical advice.
ii. Members asking other sufferers how to recover from depression
This is extremely problematic to me. Your doctor and psychologist are the best people to ask about how to recover, and if you do want input from somewhere who has lived experience, then at least talk to someone who has actually recovered and is now happy and healthy - not someone who's still trapped in the throes of it. Otherwise - and I don't mean this pejoratively - but it really is just the blind leading the blind.
iii. Members using support groups as nothing more than a place to whinge and complain
Unfortunately, many people use (particularly online) support groups as a forum to do little more than whinge and complain. And if you're trying to recover from depression, it doesn't help you to surround yourself with this constant negativity.
Like I've said, I've been part of around 15-20 support groups, and I must say that I've seen far more bad than good, so I'm personally not a fan of them. But if you find one where people actively encourage each other in a positive environment, then that's great.
If you're suffering from depression, I strongly encourage you to use this post as a checklist. Ask yourself, am I doing the right things to recover from depression?
If you can honestly answer "yes", then that's great - in time you're very likely to recover and live the life you want.
If your answer is "no", then you now know why you haven't recovered yet. And if you want to change your destiny, then you now know what you need to do.
If you enjoyed reading this post, I encourage you to download a FREE copy of my memoir here.