Dr Rajesh Jacob speaks with the editorial team at Honeycombers to debunk the stigma around mental health medication.
Depression has been portrayed extensively in pop culture and media, from R.E.M.’s hit song “Everybody Hurts”, to the television series “13 Reasons Why”. The phrase “I’m so depressed” is thrown around casually when someone has had a bad day or when they can’t get their favourite brand of ice-cream. But what is depression, really? How does it affect us, and can it be treated?
If someone was recently fired or lost a loved one, it would be natural to feel grief at such events. However, grief is not depression. Depression is classified as a mood disorder that causes unusually low moods for an extended period of time and may impair one’s ability to function at work and at home. Grief or other stressful situations may sometimes trigger depression, but unlike grief, there is often no discernible cause for the hopelessness and despair a depressed individual feels. Depression affects everyone differently, and factors such as one’s family background, environment, or physical state can impact their chances of developing depression, and how severely it impacts them.
Depression has a variety of symptoms that can vary in intensity, including;
- Low mood;
- Loss of interest in typically pleasurable activities;
- Sudden weight loss, or gain;
- Changes in appetite;
- Sleeping too much, or too little;
- Restlessness or being slowed down;
- Feelings of worthlessness, or excessive guilt;
- Inability to concentrate;
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
There are several different types of depression, with the most common being Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). According to a study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), 1 in 16 people in Singapore have experienced MDD in their lifetime. Major depressive episodes last about eight months and have a 70% chance of recurring within five years, though this varies with each individual.
There is also Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD), also known as dysthymia. This type of depression can last for several years, with symptoms receding for no more than two months at a time. PDD is much harder to spot, as the symptoms are often not as severe as MDD. Due to the length in which PDD affects individuals, friends and family may eventually brush it off as part of their personality. Others may think that they are just naturally “gloomy”, or “introverted” and “withdrawn”. Some individuals may also experience major depressive episodes while in the midst of PDD. This is known as double depression.
If any of the above sounds like they might apply to you or someone you know, you may be wondering “what can I do?”. The first step would be to speak to a mental health professional, who can properly assess the situation and make a diagnosis if necessary. They can then recommend a form of treatment. However, there is no “one size fits all” treatment. It may take many tries to find one that works for you. To help find that, here are some proven methods of treatment.
Antidepressants prescribed by psychiatrists help to stabilise one’s mood by adjusting specific parts of their brain chemistry. SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed class of antidepressants and help to boost the effects of serotonin in the brain. Antidepressants take time to produce full effects so don’t be discouraged if you don’t experience any effects immediately. However, if the antidepressants do not work after an extended period of time, or produce unpleasant side effects, speak to your psychiatrist about changing medications. When taking antidepressants, be sure to adhere to the prescribed dosage in order to see the best results. There is a common misconception that if someone feels better after taking antidepressants for a while, they can stop taking it immediately. This is not the case, and can instead cause their mood to suddenly crash back down again. If you are feeling better after taking antidepressants, speak to your psychiatrists, and together you can work out a plan to reduce the dosage of antidepressants.
While medication can help to reduce symptoms of depression and improve one’s mood, they may not cure depression. Speaking to a counsellor or therapist can help to uncover underlying issues that are causing distress. The therapist can then focus on addressing these issues and equipping you with appropriate techniques to cope. Contrary to what is depicted on television, therapy does not involve lying on a couch and talking about your childhood. It is important that you feel comfortable with your therapist and develop a relationship with them where you are able to share openly about your struggles. One of the most commonly used forms of therapy is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which takes a goal-oriented approach to tackle negative behaviours or emotions.
Other forms of treatment
Aside from talk therapy, some individuals may find it helpful to find new ways of expressing the emotions that they are struggling with. This could be done through art therapy or psychodrama. Psychodrama allows individuals to explore different roles in a safe space using actions as well as words. For those worried about the side effects of taking medication, there is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). TMS Therapy is a non-invasive treatment that uses strong magnetic pulses, similar to those in an MRI, to stimulate areas of the brain that are underactive in depression.
Unfortunately, even with the wide variety of treatments available, the majority of people suffering from depression do not actually seek professional help. In many cases, this is due to the stigma associated with mental illness and the fear of what others may say. People with depression are often told “just stop being sad”, or “you should be happy, you have so many things to be thankful for”. So they hide it. They struggle each and every day and they hope that they’ll just get better on their own. But that makes the process so much harder. Support from friends and family is crucial in the recovery process.
Depression is a disease that can happen to anyone. It could happen to the quiet kid that sits in the corner. Or to your best friend who’s always been bubbly and lively, and now seems like someone else that you can barely recognise. But just like other diseases, it is possible to recover from depression with the right support from friends, family, and therapists. So be kind to one another, love one another, and when things get tough, be there for one another.
Emotional Self-Regulation: The difference between having a controlling behaviour and having self-mastery
For someone who struggles with emotional self-regulation, what does having a “breakthrough” mean? A “breakthrough” could mean coming to a point of realisation and acceptance of one’s mental state, and taking a step forward to change his/her seemingly challenging behaviour. To achieve this, we’ll need to learn the art of self-mastery in order to transform our emotions, attitude and most importantly, our behaviour.
Let’s not beat about the bush – the most pivotal factor to attaining self-mastery is for the person in question to understand that he/she needs to take charge of his/her own thoughts, emotions and actions. The model of self-mastery dictates that we should acknowledge and accept that we are the ones who are responsible for changing our own life experiences. It is often said that we are each the author of our own lives, in which we live in whatever we create. At any point in time, we should always be open to learning life skills to deal with whatever life presents us, instead of resisting or reacting against it. We should learn to control what happens to us by exercising creative control over the circumstances that we throw ourselves into. Without the will to take charge and make the relevant changes, this “breakthrough” would, unfortunately, be a tough feat.
There is a difference between control and self-mastery, and it is crucial that we internalise this. Oftentimes, people with mental health conditions tend to display controlling behaviours of themselves or others. To put it succinctly, controlling behaviour arises when we compel others to change their behaviour to cater to our own experiences of life. On the contrary, self-mastery means transforming our own behaviour in order to change our own experiences of life. Practising self-mastery implies that we adapt to what life presents us, instead of quitting or getting emotionally erratic when things become challenging. This involves learning new life skills that we have yet to master in order to carry us through frustrating tough times and eliminate controlling behaviour. Controlling or manipulative behaviour often emerges from within ourselves whenever things don’t go as we expect. We victimise ourselves and push the blame towards others or life in general for what was presented so as to “correct” the situation. The truth is, when you feel that people aren’t showing you the gratitude or appreciation that you deserve, the fault is not with them. In actual fact, you are exhibiting a need to control – to bring your current life experiences to fit your idealised version of it. For individuals with disruptive emotions and impulses, self-mastery may not come easily to them, as a result of the dysfunction of their self-regulation skills. Yet, this doesn’t mean that it is entirely impossible.
Self-mastery means not allowing our past negative experiences to affect our present and future. It is not easy to undo those past experiences, as they are like deep-seated stains on our clothes that cannot be removed. However, we can choose not to wear those clothes again. It is hard to pick up anything new if our hands are full of burdens. Making peace with our past by letting go, forgiving or even forgetting, will give us space for an untarnished and more objective approach to our present and future. Practising self-mastery also includes being mindful of how you interpret an event in a way that reduces the negative thought or completely replacing it with a positive one. This psychological strategy can be understood by looking at a glass and asking yourself whether it is half full or half empty. Instead of focusing on the dark clouds, we should change our interpretative lens to uncover the silver lining. For example, instead of envying your friend’s success, you should see your own failure as a temporary detour and not a dead end.
Being mindful of our actions and reactions helps us see them for what they are so as to reign in any impulsive controlling, or difficult behaviour. Truth be told, we have all displayed difficult behaviour at times, which as a result, might have caused us to burn a bridge or two. However, the display of fluctuating emotions may be a regular occurrence for some individuals who may not know how to work towards a “breakthrough”. In this case, only if we are mindful of our behaviours can we be less reactive and better able to reframe our perception of our current experience in a less emotional and upsetting manner. With practice, we will slowly become better at creating that space which will then allow us to choose our reactions rather than just reacting out of habit or impulse. Of course, this, in turn, leads to happier and healthier relationships, ultimately improving our mental state of health as well.
Last, but not least, a crucial step in developing self-mastery is to start with self-honesty and truthfulness. Do some self-reflection. That is, have an honest assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as owning up to your problems. When you are able to identify your weaknesses, you will be able to direct yourself better to what needs to be worked on and the relevant life skills you’ll need to master in order to find a breakthrough. In contrast, focusing on your strengths will also help boost your self-confidence, and act as a motivation for you to work towards making the change you need (i.e., self-improvement). If it helps, attend a peer support group. Peer support groups are built on shared personal experiences and empathy – it focuses on one’s strengths and helps you work towards your mental health and happiness goals. At the same time, it comforts you that you aren’t on the road to mental resilience and self-mastery alone and that there are many out there like you. Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help too, for it could very well be the push you need to help you achieve the breakthrough you desire.
Tanya Curtis, Control vs Self-Mastery: A Key to Lasting Change for a Person with a Mental Illness, video recording, Mental Health Academy
<https://www.mentalhealthacademy.co.uk/dashboard/catalogue/control-vs-self-mastery-a-key-to-lasting-change-for-a-person-with-a-mental-illness/video> (Accessed 16/06/2020)