THE ENEMY IS IN YOUR MIND
What is depression? Why are mental health issues becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society?
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are constantly shoving images down our collective throats of the “picture perfect” lifestyle, how we should look, what we should eat, how we should feel (#blessed); it’s enough to make anyone feel depressed when you compare and contrast.
It is hard to imagine celebrities and sporting stars with the world at their feet falling victim to depression and mental illness but there have been a number of high profile cases in recent years. AFL stars Lance “Buddy” Franklin of the Sydney Swans and Geelong’s Mitch Clark have both come out publicly to talk about their depression. And who can forget everyone’s favourite actor, Robin Williams, who tragically lost his fight in August of 2014 after battling depression for a number of years. Are we really living in a world that could not accommodate one of the greatest comedians of our generation?
So how do we actually become depressed? Dr Gary Patullo, a clinical psychologist of South Fremantle, who treats on average 30 patients a year for depression, says there are a number of ways that mental health issues and depression can develop over time.
“Ultimately the experience or phenomenon of depression is due to changes in the production and metabolising of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin that negatively affect functions such as thinking, memory, activity, metabolism, appetite, sleep patterns etc,” he says.
These changes in brain functioning in turn have a negative feedback effect that further reduces production of neurotransmitters. However, the triggers for this change in neurotransmitters is less straight forward, he says.
“In the case of endogenous depression such as bipolar disorders, dysthymia, cyclothymia, schizoaffective disorder and brain injury, changes in neurotransmitter production can be triggered by things that would not affect the average person, and at times by no apparent trigger at all,” explains Dr Patullo.
“In the case of reactive depression, the change in neurotransmitter production is a response to external factors such as bereavement, chronic stress, chronic anxiety, hopelessness etc. We can all become depressed, however, the individual person’s vulnerability to depression is in part a genetic thing but also very influenced by developmental factors that influence characteristics such as positivity, resilience, hopefulness, hopelessness, emotional attachment, emotional dependence, trauma, neglect and so on.”
Diagnosing and treating the issues can be an entirely different story though. Mental health issues still seem extremely taboo and people are afraid to come forward to say how they are really feeling deep down inside. After all, we are all meant to be strong, invincible warriors 24/7 – this goes double for men.
“Essentially you have endogenous and exogenous depression. Endogenous depression is due to a structural vulnerability in the production of neurotransmitters. A bit like epilepsy where the person’s brain can randomly go into uncontrolled neural activity but also can be triggered by things like severe stress, drugs, overheating. Exogenous depression is still a change in neurotransmitter production but caused by external environmental factors such as grief, chronic fatigue, chronic pain and so on,” he says.
“I take a bio-psychosocial position in which mental health disorders are a product of biological factors, psychological (developmental) factors and social factors (family history, parenting style, socio-economic factors and so on). For severe depression the first line of treatment is biological because psychological intervention is unlikely to be effective because the person’s thinking, attention and memory are too impaired to engage with and benefit from psychotherapy which makes it very difficult for the person to initiate behavioural strategies. In this case medication may be necessary to reduce symptoms and sometimes hospitalisation can provide a safe and structured environment where the depressed person can be helped to return to normal functioning such as eating well, sleeping well, structured physical activity and exercise which in themselves help to stimulate production of neurotransmitters.”
Someone who knows the difficulties of going about day to day life with mental illness all too well is 24 year-old model Katie Mills. The six-foot blonde bombshell from Scene modelling agency suffers from anorexia nervosa, anxiety disorder, and panic disorder, which all lead into and feed her depression.
“I had always suffered anxiety as a kid but my anorexia started around three years ago after my boyfriend and I broke up. I feel like it was more of a control thing, I had no control over him but I could control how much I could eat and how much I could lose I guess. It was all about keeping myself distracted,” she says longingly.
Katie won Pierrot’s Model search competition in 2013 before becoming the face of the competition in 2015. The win brought about an influx of modelling jobs, but also an increase of pressure, anxiety, and a myriad of other issues.
“Mentally there is a lot of pressure, the last thing you want going into a photo shoot is to not fit the clothes or to feel uncomfortable basically because you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, even if you don’t want to. It’s easier the skinnier you are,” she admits.
“I think it doesn’t help when they say ‘we want you size 8’ but when you keep losing weight they say ‘Oh my God you look great keep doing what you’re doing.’ So as much as they say one thing, they really do another. It’s a hard dynamic I guess. It (modelling) definitely affects it (anorexia) but obviously it’s a mental disorder so it’s not the only factor.”
So how does she deal with her down days? How does she avoid those triggers? Everyone is different so what works for her may not work for others. For Katie, it’s a mixture of distraction, exercise, and medication.
“I distract myself massively,” she says, nervously pulling at her fingernails.
“It’s usually cleaning or getting myself out of the house, anything where I’m physically moving, that’s what I’ll do. But that’s obviously not dealing with the actual issue, it’s just avoiding it. Really my coping techniques aren’t very good because usually it’s giving in to the eating disorder and depression as well so, it’s a fine line. It kind of works and it kind of doesn’t; in many ways, I’ve still got anorexia and depression so it’s a hard one, if I didn’t have it then my coping strategies would work but some days I’m good, some days I’m not.”
Another to suffer at the hands of mental illness, albeit quite indirectly, is 21 year-old Darcy Maxwell. Darcy was a close friend to Kai Eardley who lost his battle with depression in late July of this year. Darcy and Kai met in their first year at Melville Senior High School and with two other friends, they dubbed themselves the ‘awesome foursome’.
“We were always together and spent countless hours in Kai’s granny flat having cuddle trains and talking for hours of end. We have been friends since then but became closer again once our good friend Nic had a serious motorbike accident,” she says, looking up towards the sky.
“In the last year or so I notice a slight difference in him. Nic had told me a few things in confidence but without that I would have been clueless. Apart from enjoying a few too many drinks a bit much he was pretty much the same Kai I had known for nine years.”
When recalling the moments after she found out about Kai’s death, she paused, once again looking towards the sky.
“At first it was an intense shock followed by an enormous amount of grief,” she says, breathing out deeply.
“I then went through a stage of numbness which went on for about two weeks, it wasn’t until a few days after the funeral that I became sad and felt so much sadness in the fact we would never get to cuddle again.”
The pain seemingly lasted forever for Darcy, until one lucid dream provided the closure she desperately needed.
“I basically cried for days on end about it until one night I had a dream that he was here and we laid on my bed and cuddled for hours and talked just like we always had, it then came time for him to go and we cried together and then he left,” she explains with a thankful smile.
“When I woke up from that even though I was extremely upset I felt like I got to say my goodbye and I got my last cuddle I really wanted and needed.”
While the people going through depression and mental illness undoubtedly have it worse off, it’s often forgotten that the people around them suffer just as heavily; even more so if they decide to take their own life.
If you are experiencing any of these issues pertaining to depression and/or self-harm, contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 for crisis support.