“In the traditional way you’d engage with the thinking and challenge it,” she says. “You think you’re boring; so, what is the evidence that you’re not boring? But it’s still thinking about your thinking. The new wave, meta-cognitive stuff is about not even going there. It’s about seeing that these are just thoughts; that you can take them or leave them, you can just let them go. It is against ruminating, against engaging. I’m very excited about that direction, particularly for women.”
The accepted signs of depression include persistent sadness, or excessive anxiety, or extreme tiredness, or worthlessness, or guilt.
I suffer from none of them. But the National Depression Initiative in Australia runs checklists on depression on its website, beyondblue. I filled them in, and discovered that one of them was indicating the bottom end of “moderate distress”. They advised me to see my doctor for further assessment. Who knows? Maybe I will.
Gwendoline Smith knows a lot about depression. She has been a clinical psychologist for 20 years. She has written about depression, campaigned against its stigma. She believes that the disorder is surrounded by ignorance, fear and prejudice. She speaks from experience in more than one sense: she has suffered from depression herself.
She has noticed, for example, that depressed men come to her complaining of being agitated and irritable, and that what she calls “your more Alpha females, the driven businesswomen”, come to her with the same symptoms as men.
But she believes that urban society’s real epidemic is anxiety. She deals mainly with people who are having trouble at work, usually stress, anxiety, burnout and depression. All of them have similar symptoms: stress leads to anxiety and depression, and Smith argues that the boundaries separating them are arbitrary.
“Depression is more and more common in contemporary urban society. What you’re seeing in twentysomethings now are prolonged, chronic, sub-acute anxiety disorders.”
“There’s a very difficult corporate culture now. People don’t take lunch breaks. Fifty- to 60-hour weeks are somehow acceptable, somehow expected. In a lot of thirtysomethings, you’re seeing burnout.
“It’s not gender-specific. Alpha females are the same as men, although they’re still not a large group. The mechanisms that are activated are exactly the same for both. The difference is the response to anxiety.
“Men have traditionally evaluated anxiety as weakness. You shift anxiety with adrenalin, so you maintain the sense of being in control under threat by being busier, faster, louder.”
Smith believes that depression is under-diagnosed in the elderly, and that older men are often not doing well.
“Women have been through menopause and adjusted to an empty nest. They’re much more equipped socially to start getting involved with community work.
“Statistics on male health show that with retirement and the death of a spouse, a significant percentage of men die within a short period. They lose the identity they achieved through their roles. In today’s culture, people at a party ask what you do. Take that away from a man who has been the general manager of a company for 20 years, and what does he say? ‘I’m out to pasture?’
“Everyone talks about the teenage suicide rate. I’m not saying that’s unimportant. But a lot of suicides in the elderly are seen as someone being a bit doddery, might have taken too many pills. In places like Miami and Florida – their versions of Orewa – you’ve got homicide-suicide pacts, men killing their wives, then committing suicide. It’s not an epidemic. But it’s still of interest.”
Somewhere To Run
When Tracey Richardson’s first child was four weeks old, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF). He faced a limited life expectancy. There is no cure for CF. Her second child was born little more than a year later – also with CF. Her husband left her.
She didn’t recognise the onset of depression at first. “I didn’t see myself as depressed. Didn’t see myself as unable to get out of bed, or likely to cry all day and feel completely useless, which is how I viewed depression then.”
Instead, she got busier and busier, until her father died of cancer and the crisis was upon her.
A few weeks later, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
“It doesn’t go away,” she says. “I still have to deal with depression. My grief triggers are here in front of me and full of life every day. It’s wonderful, but it’s so sad at the same time.
“The only time I’m likely to get away from it is when I don’t have them any more, and that’s not something I want to happen. It’s a real conundrum. It’s like a wave in the sea. It comes in and gets you and drags you back out and under.
“The last time I had depression, I worked out I had four choices: go under (that is, suicide); get out; soldier on; or develop ways to deal with things, change the way I lived my life.”
She took the fourth course. She started off with the gym, worked towards the Special K Triathlon, aimed at the New Zealand Ironman triathlon. She has written a book, Going the Distance. She has remarried, has two more children. Her first two children are 14 and 13.
“It has claimed me twice in my life. Once was bad enough and it came out of the blue. But the second time I could feel it and there was nothing I could do to stop it. That was worse.”
“When you’re starting to go down the slide, it’s like a vortex. But when you’re starting that slide, you only know you’re feeling off. You don’t want to go to a GP because you’re going to get drugs, that’s what they do. So, where do you go, who do you ask, talk to?
“The [Mental Health Foundation’s] Out of the Blue campaign is a good starting point. But there’s a whole level of undiagnosed depression with huge implications for workplaces, relationships, parenting.
“I think more women suffer from it because they have a nurturing and caring way. I’m watching my nearest and dearest deteriorate and suffer. I have all the responsibility for that, to care for them, love and nurture them, protect them, not let that happen to them. A lot of women’s depression revolves around their children. It’s that sense of having to do and be everything.”
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