Understanding is the first step to healing
With high-profile sufferers such as Olympian Clara Hughes breaking their silence, depression is finally getting the attention it deserves. We break some of the most common—and most damaging—myths about this common illness.
From Canadian Olympic athlete Clara Hughes, who candidly talks about her struggle, to beloved comedian Robin Williams, who lost his struggle with the illness, depression is finally getting the attention it deserves.
The Canadian Mental Health Association says that mental illness affects all Canadians at some time, either through family members, friends, or colleagues, and that about 20 percent of Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime.
While the statistics are sobering and a number of high-profile people have talked openly about it, there are still long-standing myths that persist and prevent us from fully understanding depression.
“Depression is so misunderstood because it is a disease of the mind that remains a mystery to most. It is not like a physical ailment—such as a broken leg or arm—where the cast becomes a clear signal to the observer that something has happened,” says Christina Bjorndal, an Edmonton, Alberta-based doctor of naturopathic medicine who specializes in depression.
Some of the most popular, and perhaps the most damaging, myths around depression are that it only happens to other people and that it is just about “feeling sad.”
Depression can happen to anyone, at any age or stage of life. What made Clara Hughes’s story so poignant was that she was at the pinnacle of her athletic career.
Despite her many Olympic wins, Hughes has long spoken out about depression and her fading feeling of happiness and joy. Before she was helped by a national team doctor, she didn’t even know she was depressed.
Another persistent myth is that depression is just about feeling down, but what a sufferer actually feels goes much deeper than that. Some of the symptoms of depression listed by the Public Health Agency of Canada amply demonstrate this:
“One of the most damaging myths about depression is that one can just “shake it off” or “get a hold of themselves,” says Nancy Tavares-Jones, a psychotherapist based in North York, Ontario. “If someone had diabetes, would you tell them to stop complaining and create insulin?”
“I think one of the most popular myths about depression is that you will never be able to come off an antidepressant. I find this damaging because it leaves people feeling like they are helpless or a victim—as if there is nothing they can do to change the circumstances of their situation,” says Bjorndal.
Depression often includes physical symptoms such as changes in weight or appetite, sleep disturbances, and decreased energy or fatigue. While we know that depression has been linked with heart disease, Danish scientists recently showed that even one depressive episode has long-lasting effects on a person’s mental well-being.
They showed that a person’s “social cognition,” which is a name for the mental activities that allow each of us to understand our own thoughts, feelings, and intentions (including reading body language and facial expressions of others), continues to be impaired after just one depressive episode.
Research into what we put into our bodies is becoming increasingly relevant. Sugary drinks have been linked to depression, while coffee drinkers who drink four or more cups a day showed a decreased prevalence. Unsurprisingly, a nutrient-dense diet based on whole, fresh foods has also been shown to decrease the risk of and symptoms associated with depression.
“A good analogy to keep in mind is that if you don’t put the right type of gas in the car, the car won’t run properly,” says Bjorndal. She says the most often discussed neurotransmitter associated with depression is serotonin, but that in order to make serotonin, we need tryptophan, an essential amino acid.
Because our bodies can’t make tryptophan, we must get it from foods such as spinach, cheese, peanuts, fish, chicken and turkey, nuts and seeds, oats, and avocado. Also important are those nutrients that we need to convert tryptophan to serotonin, such as vitamins C, B6, and B3; zinc; and magnesium.
Similarly, lifestyle choices and mental and emotional outlook can also determine if and to what extent one suffers from depression. One recent study showed that high mobile phone use was associated with sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression in men and women. That same study showed that those who perceived they were constantly available and were feeling stressed because of it had a higher prevalence for mental health issues, including depression.
Depression is an illness in which the interplay between many facets of life all come together, including diet, stress, sleep, exercise, lifestyle, and emotional well-being. That wide array of influences is one reason why it can be so difficult to treat and to diagnose. However, it is those same factors that provide practitioners with an array of different tools to treat depression.
Omega-3 fatty acids are being studied as a possible treatment for depression. Essential for healthy brain function, omega-3s can be found in cold-water fish, flaxseeds, flax oil, walnuts and walnut oil, and other foods as well as in supplement form.
5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) may play a role in improving serotonin levels, a chemical that affects mood, but more research is needed.
B-complex vitamins, especially folic acid and vitamin B6, may be helpful in mild depression.
Standardized extracts of St. John’s wort have long been used in Europe as a remedy for mild to moderate depression.
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to depression. One study showed that women with moderate to severe depression said their symptoms improved substantially after taking vitamin D.