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mental health mondays [rewind] :: know when to say when, part one

i thought it might be time to resurrect this post, one of the original mental health mondays, since the topics covered here continue to be popular ones and it makes a nice little primer at a time when depression tends to run rampant.


i'm glad to see that it's getting easier for people to admit when there's something that's not right in the old attic. personally, i try to encourage people to engage in these sorts of conversations, not so that we can have a group "woe is me" session, but because it tears the lid off how common it is to have periods of moderate to severe depression or anxiety and how increasingly common it is to take medications for a period of time to help alleviate the symptoms. it is easier to admit, but there does still seem to be a stigma that mental disorders are the domain of the weak or the hopelessly insane and that to admit that one has problems is to cast oneself into one of those categories. not exactly something you want written on your c.v., for sure.

the great thing about open communication on the issue is that it allows people to better put their own depression and anxiety in context, which is the first step to understanding what can be done. because once you're able to admit that you're having difficulties, it opens up a whole other set of questions about how you're going to deal with them.

the disordered brain, actual image

first, let's dispense with the "weak or crazy" myths. these generally date from a time when there was comparatively little known about the brain, so it was largely assumed that everyone's noggin worked pretty much the same way (the sane way) as everybody else's. the only people whose brains worked differently were easily distinguishable by a mongoloid appearance, or by the fact that they were talking to god and refusing to wash for long periods of time. psychotherapy was highly theoretical and drew from the conjecture of a few influential figures who were able to do a lot of qualitative field testing.

over the course of the twentieth century and the first part of this one (over a decade in and it still feels weird to say that), scientists have been able to gather plenty of quantitative information about the brain. the fact that it resists detailed poking and prodding while still in use means that it remains difficult to fully understand, but we're way ahead of where we were when people came up with the idea that all brains were created equal.

brains are almost unimaginably complex (now there's a paradox for you) and we're not close to fully understanding all the factors that can make one work more efficiently than another, but we know enough to say without doubt that the movement of various chemicals has a tremendous effect on the functions of the body, including the so-called "pleasure centres" which are (no matter what you may be thinking) those areas of the brain that tell us whether something makes us feel good or bad. lots of things affect those chemicals- sleep, diet, exercise, injuries, virtually everything your body can do, feeds back into the brain and the brain, in turn, tells your body how it feels about it.

so the next time someone starts with the talk about how mental illness is imaginary, remind them that that's what people thought of electricity, but somehow we have light in our houses.

so now that we've established that there are such things as mental disorders, it becomes a question of determining where to draw the line between a regular "up" or "down" cycle and a problem area. for this, i like to use the example of the stock market and point to duration as an indicator of severity. there are always spikes and "corrections", where things slow down, sometimes quite sharply. let's deal with the "down" cycles first. [i'll be dealing with the "up" cycles next week.]

1. a drop in the stock market, as any financial adviser will tell you, is a natural thing and the fact is that markets ride them out every year. without any interference, they come back on their own and things continue as usual. think of this as those periods of time when you feel down because you were turned down for publication or promotion, or when you're going through a break-up, or when you're recovering from an injury.

this is your brain on depression
2. after a certain period of down time, economists start referring to a "recession". this means that you've had a few bad indicators over a period of time. there aren't hard and fast rules, but personally, i favour simply looking at the symptoms: how much it's interfering with your life, whether it shows signs of getting worse, etc., and monitoring for a couple of months to see how it goes. you may or may not want to seek outside assistance, but at least look at some basic things you could be doing in order to ease your pain. [note: if your symptoms include thinking seriously and repeatedly about killing yourself, go directly to step 3 and get help.]

3. if a recession continues, economists determine that the market has entered a depression. a depression is not merely defined by its length, although that is a factor. depressions are severe systemic failures characterised by a lack of resources that would allow improvement. depressions are long in duration and require outside (in financial terms, government) assistance in order to maintain stability while they last and to build up confidence to the point where the economy (or the individual) can start to recover.

if you've been feeling low for months on end, if you're not sure what you could do to make things better, or if you've tried all that you know and nothing is working, this is when you need to move outside your own head and ask for help. help doesn't mean a doctor- it can mean anyone with a reasonably objective point of view and some understanding of how moods, emotions and brains actually work (i.e., recognises that mental problems are real as a start). that can mean a psychiatric professional, but you can just as easily start with a family doctor, a spiritual leader (if you're religious), or even friends. if you're wondering why i say "and even friends", it's because i actually don't think talking to friends about these sorts of things generally accomplishes very much, if for no other reason than that your friends aren't objective. that's not to say you shouldn't talk to them, it's just that they don't tend to make the best therapists.

the only way to monitor how much issues like depression and anxiety in its various forms are weighing on you is to observe your symptoms. and don't trust yourself to remember: write 'em down. there are a lot of perfectly valid sources of information on line about what the symptoms of these problems are. look for ones that are reputable- ones that cite outside sources, that have a variety of identified contributors whose qualifications you can verify, ones that present facts rather than theories. as with many things, wikipedia makes a decent starting point. at the same time, find out things you can do that might help with these issues. if you're depressed, try being more active or following better sleeping patterns. if you're stressed, consider cutting down the caffeine intake. these may not solve your problems, but they aren't going to hurt.

if you've tried making adjustments and things still aren't working for you, you've probably reached that point we all dread: the decision on whether or not to medicate.

as far as non-medicinal methods of coping, there are an increasing number of studies on the effectiveness of exercise and diet (i would always recommend those as "first line" therapy anyway), on certain dietary supplements (be careful to look at how much is actually needed to produce a result- it's not as simple as eating salmon more often, although any excuse to eat salmon works for me) and on practices like cognitive behavioural therapy (which can often be a key to addressing the underlying causes of problem depression and anxiety).

if you do want to try medications, then know your options. you'll want to investigate for yourself and talk to your medical professional about the pros and cons of each one. i'll be giving a brief rundown of what your most popular choices will be in part two of this post.


as long as you're here, why not read more?


i keep seeing this ad for tictac candies:

am i the only one who finds the suicide bomber clown at the end a little unnerving? all the nice natural things like the bunny and the [extinct] woolly mammoth and the fruit get devoured by a trying-to-appear-nonthreatening-but-obviously-psychotic clown who then blows himself up. congratulations, tictac, i think this ad has landed you on about a dozen watch lists.

oh and by the way, showing me that your product will somehow cause my stomach to explode in a rainbow of wtf makes me believe that doing consuming tictacs would be a worse dietary decision than the time i ate two raw eggs and a half a bottle of hot sauce on a dare.

making faces :: hot stuff, comin' through

i don't even know what to say about the weather. the end of september saw temperatures at a scalding 36c/ 97f outside. this is especially annoying because we've had a moderate summer. most days it rained a little in the morning, the temperatures didn't creep into the 30s too often and there wasn't the normal stretch of a few weeks when it felt like we were living on the sun. now, we've receded into more normal fall weather, although it's still on the warm side for mid-october. that climate change thing is a bitch.

trying to think of something positive in the situation, it does put me in a perfect frame of mind to write about urban decay's naked heat palette. it's the latest in what appears to be an endless series of warm neutral and red eyeshadow palettes that have followed in the footsteps of anastasia's modern renaissance. [which i ultimately decided i didn't need after doing a thorough search of my considerable stash.] i do think that it'…

i agree, smedley [or, smokers totally saved our planet in 1983]

so this conversation happened [via text, so i have evidence and possibly so does the canadian government and the nsa].

dom and i were trying to settle our mutual nerves about tomorrow night's conversion screening, remembering that we've made a fine little film that people should see. which is just about exactly what dom had said when i responded thusly:

me :: i agree smedley. [pauses for a moment] did you get that here?

dom :: no?

me :: the aliens who were looking at earth and then decided it wasn't worth bothering with because people smoked even though it was bad for them?
come to think of it, that might mean that smokers prevented an alien invasion in the seventies.

dom :: what ?!?!?

me :: i've had wine and very little food. [pause] but the alien thing was real. [pause.] well, real on tv.

dom :: please eat something.

of course, i was wrong. the ad in question ran in 1983. this is the part where i would triumphantly embed the ad from youtube, except that the governmen…