Maintaining Mental Health

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month!

Depression is one of those things that seemingly has no rhyme or reason as to when it decides to rear its ugly head. Sure, it’s always more or less prevalent in the lives of those who suffer from it, but there are times when it decides to take over every aspect of the way you think, feel, and view the world. It’s rather well-known by now that depression is largely based in the makeup of brain chemicals.

In short, depression (chemically) stems from a lack of dopamine and hypo sensitivity to serotonin in the brain. Dopamine, known as the “happy chemical,” is essential to keeping our motivation going. In other words, when you feel little to no excitement over doing things that once pleased you, there is a good chance this is related to a dopamine deficiency. The relationship between serotonin and the brain in someone who’s depressed is a bit more complex. More often than not, someone who suffers from depression is not deficient in serotonin, but rather the neurotransmitters in the brain are not accepting and absorbing the chemical. Serotonin is thought to regulate things such as a constant sleep schedule and appetite, which are two things that are often lacking in depression sufferers. If you’re interested, I wrote a post a while back on the more technical aspects of depression here: Clinical Depression, broken down.

Since depression is oftentimes so rooted in chemical imbalances, it rarely “goes away.” Medication can help to alleviate symptoms and bring some stability to the chemicals in the brain, and therapy can help with the more apparent effects of the depression, but to expect such a mentally crippling illness to simply disappear is uncommon, as nice as it would be. So why, then, does depression seem to hit us harder at some moments than others? Personally, I can go weeks without feeling like my depression is keeping me from doing things – I can hang out with friends and genuinely enjoy myself, get out of bed at a reasonable time, and eat all three meals in a day as opposed to just snacking far too much at one point in the day.

Of course, I’ve experienced the flip side of this more often than I can count. I’ve gone months without doing anything social with friends, had no discernible eating pattern, and my sleep schedule has been so out of whack that I was closer to nocturnal creature than human.

And whilst I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum of depression, far more often, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Not terribly depressed, not carefree, but simply feeling average. So again, I ask, what causes depression to go one way or another? For those who have it, it’s always there, but it seems to be a matter of chance whether it’ll get worse or lessen.

I’m far from an expert. I don’t have a degree in psychology or a doctorate; any opinions I state here are from talking to others with depression and my own experiences. From what I can tell, depression is affected by what goes on outside of the brain, in our lives, just as much as (if not more than) what chemical imbalances there are in our brains. Our social lives, our sleep schedule, our establishment of a somewhat consistent (at least) schedule…the list goes on. This may seem obvious to some, but for those whose lives can be overtaken at a moment’s notice by depression, it can be quite easy to lose grasp of this seemingly simple concept.

I think of maintaining your mental health like maintaining a garden. You can go out and buy the highest quality seeds possible, and plant them in the most fertile, open land you can find. The setup is ripe with success. However, if you don’t water and cultivate those seeds, working to remove any weeds that spring up, those seeds won’t grow and bloom into something as beautiful as they have the potential to be. The land in which you plant those seeds are the environment you’re in, i.e. the people who support you in the form of healthy relationships. Maintaining your garden after it’s planted is taking the steps needed to keep yourself mentally healthy – keeping a consistent sleeping and eating schedule, making an effort to go out and be social at least occasionally, staying active, and attending therapy and taking medication prescribed to you, if you feel that’s what you need to keep yourself afloat. Picking weeds is removing any unhealthy habits and influences from your life, especially those that tend to make depression worse – smoking, drinking, and overeating. These habits are nothing but temporary relief, trading a moment of peace for tougher consequences later on down the line.

A mistake often made by those suffering from depression is thinking that because they may be in one of their moments of (for lack of a better term) not-so-apparent depression, they can fall off of their mentally healthy habits without any type of fallout. They begin to go to bed a bit later, eat a bit more, consume alcohol more often…and they fall back into a deep depression, because they let their “mental guard” down and allowed depression to reestablish control over them. It’s a vicious cycle – feel good because the depression isn’t acting up as much, fall back into unhealthy habits because it feels fine, deep depression creeps back in because of a lack of care, work to re-cultivate a healthy lifestyle, and the cycle begins anew. The key is to find the sweet spot, so that you find a way to re-cultivate a healthy lifestyle,and keep it that way.

I may make it sound easy here. It isn’t. I struggle with this every single day, as does nearly every individual who struggles with depression. If you know somebody who is so skilled at keeping their depression in check that it’s like they don’t have it at all, even in the privacy of their own home, kudos to them. You know one of the few. If mental health was so easy to maintain, I guarantee it wouldn’t get nearly as much attention as it does. A benefit to this is the amount of resources now made available to everyone, free of charge. At the end of this post, I’ll have a list of numbers available to those suffering from depression and things often tied to it.

If there’s any one point I’m trying to make with this post, it’s this: having a mentally healthy lifestyle is a balance of monitoring brain chemicals, mostly through medication, and maintaining a lifestyle which supports your intention to be happy. Being physical is as important for your mental health as it is physical health. Licensed therapists are such an underused resource for mental health, as many people attach a stigma to them; some people see them as a resource for those too weak to take care of themselves. This isn’t true in the slightest. I see a therapist every week, not because I can’t maintain a healthy lifestyle independently – I can. I see him because having him as resource, especially for those times my depression is acting up more than usual, is invaluable to me.

You deserve to be happy. Not just putting on a smile for those who see you, but genuinely happy. Depression doesn’t want you to be happy – it’s in the name. But by maintaining as many aspects of your life as you can, you can be stronger than the illness. As always, whether I know you or not, feel free to send me a message if you want to talk – I’m happy to do whatever I can to help lessen the burden of depression, if I can.

US Suicide Hotline —— 1-800-784-2433

NDMDA Depression Hotline – Support Group ————– 800-826-3632

Suicide Prevention Services Crisis Hotline ———- 800-784-2433

Suicide Prevention Services Depression Hotline ——– 630-482-9696

Parental Stress Hotline – Help for Parents ——— 800-632-8188

Suicide & Depression Hotline – Covenant House ——— 800-999-9999

National Youth Crisis Hotline ——– 800-448-4663

Source: Telephone Hotlines and Helplines

Note: All numbers listed above are U.S. numbers. A quick Google search can give any available hotlines for your country of residence. A few UK numbers are listed in the source link above.

Stay strong.

– Ryan