Some people call it the ‘black dog’, but after thinking long and hard how to describe what it feels like to suffer from depression, my personal analogy is that of an oil slick on the Caribbean sea; imagine a thick, dark, poisonous mass spreading over the clear blue waters, and you are below the surface, struggling to push through, trying to find a breath of air and a glimpse of sunshine.
Sometimes there is an unpolluted patch in the slick, like a small, clear oasis through which you emerge and float on the surface, breathing deep and enjoying the warm sun and cerulean sky. Sometimes the respite is brief – a day or a week of feeling and living a “normal” life – and other times the oil slick dissipates for months or years, as if treated with some miracle clean-up detergent, as yet uninvented.
But depression is tenacious – in many cases, as with me, it comes back like an unwelcome guest, sneaking up and engulfing every aspect of life. The symptoms are insidious, invisible to the outside and often even unnoticed by the sufferer until there comes a point when the penny drops and you realize in retrospect that the signs have been there all along, and the oil slick has gradually found you again.
Depression is not about looking sad and crying all day, spoiling people’s fun and harshing their mellow – far from it. Once someone puts a name on your feelings of emptiness, sadness, worthlessness and disconnection from day to day life, it’s a relief to know that there’s a name for it, and that others understand what is going on, even if they can’t tell you why this particular illness happens. Talking to someone who actually knows what depression entails, and hearing that you’re not alone can be the catalyst for recovery, but it takes more than just knowing about the causes and symptoms to fix them.
The stigma associated with depression is a burden to anyone who knows or suffers from its dark, invasive tentacles, and nobody wants to be tarred with that brush, socially or professionally. You may never know that your best friend, family member or employee is depressed because the stigma is such that they will do pretty much anything to make sure they keep it under wraps. After all, who wants to schlep around with some miserable party-pooper, or worse again, pussy-foot around a sensitive colleague who might burst into tears at the drop of a hat.
Which is why depression in teenagers is so difficult to diagnose, especially in the Caribbean where mental health is a vastly misunderstood and under-resourced area of health care. Every mother of a teen can regale the kaffee-klatsch crowd with funny anecdotes about their miserable offspring, but at what point does hormonal adolescent melancholia become depression, and what can a parent do to help and support their kid through it?
The UK-based charity Depression Alliance has the following advice in a leaflet for teenagers, but parents may find it useful in figuring out whether and why their kids are depressed:
“Depression is commonly caused by a mixture of things rather than any one thing alone. Some people have experiences that lead to depression. These include family breakdown, abuse, neglect and bullying. Serious illness and the death or loss of a loved one can also cause depression. People are more ‘at risk’ of becoming depressed if they have no one to share their worries with, a lot of demands on them,
and not enough support. Depression often ‘runs in families’ and someone with a close relative who is affected by depression has a higher risk of becoming depressed themselves.
“Depression is a very treatable illness. If you think that you or someone you know may be depressed, it’s well worth asking for help. This means letting a caring adult know about the problem and getting professional help. Family members can often provide valuable help and support. Teachers, school counsellors and school nurses can also be very helpful. Your family doctor will also know about local services, and will be able to help you get the help that is needed.”
Good advice indeed, but where the UK really differs from the Caribbean is when it comes to treatment options and solutions available to teenagers afflicted with depression – particularly in Saint Lucia with its dearth of mental health professionals, lack of interest from the relevant ministries and the inability of many families to afford private care for themselves or their kids.
“Young people who are depressed often find it helpful to talk about their worries to a trained counsellor. Alternatively, depending on the problems and their causes, it may be helpful to seek advice and help from a member of the local child and family mental health team. Usually, these teams consist of specialists such as psychotherapists, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, all of whom are highly skilled in helping young people and their families.”
Scary, isn’t it?