Understanding depression: It’s a chemical effect

And empty platitudes like be more grateful do not help.

Can Reiki heal depression? The link between brain chemicals and depression

While scrolling through my Facebook feed last night, I came across a post asking for recommendations for therapists who deal with depression and anxiety in adults. I know, from previous experience, that depression isn’t well understood, and that it is notoriously difficult to find good, qualified therapists. So I went through the comments to see if the lady’s query had been answered and if I could share any recommendations with her.

But the comments were closed. This meant that she had either found the information she was looking for, or people had left their usual unhelpful advice on her post.

Unsurprisingly, it was the latter. Of the almost 100 comments on that post, the majority were platitudes such as:

“Just think positive thoughts”

“What do you have to be depressed about?”

“Try doing some social service, it will help you feel better.”

Depression certainly is a subject that is still not well understood.

Even worse were the recommendations for crystal therapy, reiki, and astrology to help her “heal” her depression.

Ummm…..NO.

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you know that I love my crystals, I read the tarot, I also follow astrology for the insights it can give us into our life. I am a certified Reiki practitioner and a certified Life Healer {which means I’m certified at past life regression therapy, inner child therapy, and regression and subconscious therapy.}

That does NOT mean I can heal anyone’s depression. Because depression can’t be “healed” – it needs therapeutic intervention from a certified psychologist NOT a spiritual healer, and in many cases medication.

Most of the advice that people receive for “healing” their depression does more harm than good. And it comes from the refusal to understand what causes depression.

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You don’t have to be broke, go through a divorce, or have your life turned upside down to suffer from depression. Your life can look like a fairytale from the outside looking in, and you could still be depressed. And your life can look like a trainwreck from the outside and you may be able to take it in your stride. It’s got nothing to do with your attitude, or with gratitude, or with Reiki.

Depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that doesn’t explain how complex the disease is.

Depression doesn’t spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.

Source: Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

Telling someone to “heal” themselves or “think happy thoughts” does more harm than good. Because when your dopamine or serotonin levels are low, gratitude, crystals, and regression aren’t going to help bring them to balance. Therapeutic intervention and medication will. 

So the next time someone asks for the number of tried and tested therapists, please desist from asking them to “heal” themselves or to think happy thoughts. That’s the last thing the person suffering from depression needs to hear at such a time.

If you are genuinely interested in understand about depression, this article from Harvard Medical School is a good place to start.

Addendum

My friend Holly left a deeply insightful comment that I am adding here, because I don’t want anyone to miss it. There are several truth bombs in here that no one talks about, that fewer people even know, and that add significantly to this conversation.

Holly says:

People who don’t suffer from, or understand, depression are made uncomfortable by things that they cannot “fix” or “cure.” They offer unhelpful suggestions, and platitudes, with good intentions. But they have never known depression – they can’t begin to understand it unless they have experienced it or studied it intensively. And on some level, they realize this – and that frustrates them and makes them more uncomfortable. They, like the religious zealots, must have origin stories and explanations – a causal relationship that neatly explains the problem, puts it in a box, and materializes a hammer and a nail with which to shut the problem in and bury it for good.

They might as well save their breath.

They’re told that it’s their job to save the sick, to drag a friend from the brink – but they’re never told HOW that’s to be accomplished. I can tell them – you can’t save the person who is truly determined to die. You can hope they change their minds (that they realize that’s no way to just “call for help”) or that they screw it up (but not so badly they end up damaged, permanently). You can’t stop someone or pull them from the brink – but you may be able to find them help and drive them to their appointment with a TRAINED and QUALIFIED psychotherapist.

Thank you for being who you are, for being smart and confident and kind enough to say “This is NOT my domain – go, get a psychologist or a psychiatrist because my sort of ‘healing’ isn’t for this problem.” You cannot eat a truckload of grapefruit or pureed peach pits to cure cancer, either. Gratitude and “positive thinking” are helpful – but for a depressed person in the throes of depression, they only highlight the thought that “Something must be WRONG with me – I have nothing in my life to be depressed ABOUT!” or “I’ve got it great, why can’t I feel thankful for any of it?” It hurts worse. You close the comments in self-defense. You know they mean well, but they leave you feeling deader inside, instead of better inside.

I’m not depressed, by the way. I have been. “Depressed” is not – probably MOST of the time – “suicidal.” I think people conflate the two. You can be depressed and not even have the energy to think about dying. Dying would be too much trouble. You can think about dying and even suicide, without having the will or interest to formulate a plan or act on the thought. Normal people think “suicidal thoughts” from time to time (more of them ought to be told that). People who really, truly want to die will find a way. They’re quite clever about it. It’s the people who are screaming inside for help, but don’t realize it’s RIGHT THERE in the form of a friend or a psychologist who knows they don’t possess an instant cure, that you have to worry about. They try. They don’t really want to die, though. They bungle it. They hurt themselves (and others). The ones who can’t QUITE see that tomorrow COULD be better – and that the next week surely WILL be. If only…they just…reach out and say, “Help me.”

It takes so much more strength, sometimes, to admit when we need help – and even more than that to accept it.

Thank you so much for adding your wisdom to this conversation, Holly!

Linking up with Blogchatter’s CauseAChatter

Posted in Essays.

I’m an artist and art educator, podcaster, tarot reader, and writer. I share my discoveries along the path to inspire you to live a more creative, soul-centered life. Receive my love letters for more of my musings on life and creativity. P.S. I love Instagram - join me there?

8 Comments

  1. As someone who has seen a dear one suffering from this potentially debilitating condition, I often come across people who nurture very faulty notions about depression and the means to treat it. Turns out that they are usually the ones who’ve never had ANY first-hand experience of the condition but the confidence with which they give gyaan to others might put even a qualified therapist to shame!!!
    The other thing that bothers me is when people actually decide not to go with medications especially when the therapists have suggested so. They do so, citing side-effects! I mean, if a person with depression needs medication to treat the chemical imbalance, they need it. Period. Only a trained psychologist/therapist specialising in the condition can suggest the right course of treatment.

    • I so agree with the point you made about medication. It is so important to take medicines – and discuss any side effects with the therapists, instead of just deciding to not take them. That isn’t helpful at all!

  2. This is such an important post, Shinjini. I’m not sure why, we Indians as a people, are so uncomfortable with things like depression and grief. I hate the platitudes and the lame advice that is dished out. I really feel we need a lot more professionals in this field and a lot more information and re-education about how to seek help and what not to say to others!

    • We sure do! At least the conversation on mental health has started to open up – that is a start. I’m hopeful that by speaking about these things more often we will start to normalize depression and grief and other mental health issues.

  3. Agree with you cent percent, Shinjini! Depression can’t be cured by happy thoughts. “Now that you know you are unhappy, try to be happy” is what told to me which made me so angry. When a person says I’m unhappy they are not looking for an unhelpful comment like such. Then when a person commits suicide everyone jumps in why didn’t they tell us anything! They did, you didn’t hear over the unhelpful gyaans you were giving! And consulting a doctor is the most helpful thing that can happen. But that is not at all welcomed. Mental health is never anyone’s priority!

    • Ugh! I hate it when people rush out to give their gyaan on how to manage depression or any mental health issues. We may have started talking more openly about these subjects in India, but we still have a long way to go to really understand the seriousness of mental health.

  4. People who don’t suffer from, or understand, depression are made uncomfortable by things that they cannot “fix” or “cure.” They offer unhelpful suggestions, and platitudes, with good intentions. But they have never known depression – they can’t begin to understand it unless they have experienced it or studied it intensively. And on some level, they realize this – and that frustrates them and makes them more uncomfortable. They, like the religious zealots, must have origin stories and explanations – a causal relationship that neatly explains the problem, puts it in a box, and materializes a hammer and a nail with which to shut the problem in and bury it for good.

    They might as well save their breath.

    They’re told that it’s their job to save the sick, to drag a friend from the brink – but they’re never told HOW that’s to be accomplished. I can tell them – you can’t save the person who is truly determined to die. You can hope they change their minds (that they realize that’s no way to just “call for help”) or that they screw it up (but not so badly they end up damaged, permanently). You can’t stop someone or pull them from the brink – but you may be able to find them help and drive them to their appointment with a TRAINED and QUALIFIED psychotherapist.

    Thank you for being who you are, for being smart and confident and kind enough to say “This is NOT my domain – go, get a psychologist or a psychiatrist because my sort of ‘healing’ isn’t for this problem.” You cannot eat a truckload of grapefruit or pureed peach pits to cure cancer, either. Gratitude and “positive thinking” are helpful – but for a depressed person in the throes of depression, they only highlight the thought that “Something must be WRONG with me – I have nothing in my life to be depressed ABOUT!” or “I’ve got it great, why can’t I feel thankful for any of it?” It hurts worse. You close the comments in self-defense. You know they mean well, but they leave you feeling deader inside, instead of better inside.

    I’m not depressed, by the way. I have been. “Depressed” is not – probably MOST of the time – “suicidal.” I think people conflate the two. You can be depressed and not even have the energy to think about dying. Dying would be too much trouble. You can think about dying and even suicide, without having the will or interest to formulate a plan or act on the thought. Normal people think “suicidal thoughts” from time to time (more of them ought to be told that). People who really, truly want to die will find a way. They’re quite clever about it. It’s the people who are screaming inside for help, but don’t realize it’s RIGHT THERE in the form of a friend or a psychologist who knows they don’t possess an instant cure, that you have to worry about. They try. They don’t really want to die, though. They bungle it. They hurt themselves (and others). The ones who can’t QUITE see that tomorrow COULD be better – and that the next week surely WILL be. If only…they just…reach out and say, “Help me.”

    It takes so much more strength, sometimes, to admit when we need help – and even more than that to accept it.

    • Oh my god Holly! There are so many truth bombs in here that more people need to hear! It’s true – you cannot save the person who is truly determined to die. Though survivor’s guilt is real, and also needs to be addressed! Too many people don’t understand that, either.

      And yes to normal people thinking suicidal thoughts from time to time. I’ve been there – in “normal” times. Not that I wanted to go through with it, but I have imagined it. I’m sure many have – and then are left wondering if there’s something wrong with them. There isn’t.

      I’ve had a long struggle with depression – still do – and in that moment, there is no space for gratitude or positive thinking. Those are adjuncts to coping with mental health issues. When you’re out of the grip of depression, these practices {and others} can help with your mental health and can help you go for longer periods without falling into the pit of despair. When you’re in the thick of it, being told to look for things to be thankful for can make you feel number.

      I really wish more people understood the difference!

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