The tragic, untimely deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in early June have shone a spotlight on depression and suicide. Coincidentally that same week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released the latest statistics showing a 25% increase in deaths by suicide between 1999-2016 nationwide.
Alarming as this increase is, we must maintain perspective; suicide is still very rare (occurring in 13 per 100,000 people), especially among those diagnosed with depression. In fact, according to the CDC, more than half of those who take their own lives have no history of depression or other forms of mental illness.
Depression, however, is not that rare. It is a common and treatable condition, more prevalent among women. The National Institute of Mental Health claims that almost 7% of the US population has had a least one major depressive episode. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 1 in 5 adults experience at least mild depression.
I have certainly lived through my share of dark nights of the soul, but while reading Daphne Merkin’s memoir, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, I realized that I have never experienced the type of debilitating depression that keeps me under the covers for days. (Although I’ve wanted to stay under the covers from time to time.) I have never seriously considered taking my own life but understand the despair that may drive someone to that point.
The CDC reports about one third of those who complete suicide had recently experienced a trauma or loss including divorce, separation, and job loss. Most of us know that money does not buy happiness and, yet, when wealthy people (such as Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain) take their own lives, we are, somehow, shocked. How could someone so successful be so despondent?
Frank Bruni, NY Times columnist, addressed the simple truth in his insightful column on June 8 where he wrote of “the discrepancy between what we see of people on the outside and what they’re experiencing on the inside.” The disquieting reality is that we rarely know others’ pain.
The Set Point Theory of Happiness
According to the set point theory of happiness, a combination of genetics, personality and conditioning predisposes each individual to a level of wellbeing experienced on a daily basis. Some people are “naturally” happy; while others are “naturally” dour. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Recognizing one’s set point, however, is not a life sentence; a low set point does not mean a life of doom and gloom. I have always believed that my set point is on the lower end of the continuum. I work extra hard at staying positive.
The Road to Resilience
Genetics and brain chemistry aside, one major difference between those of us who experience garden variety depression and those whose lives are upended by despair is the ability to bounce back. Resilience is a trait that some researchers believe has a genetic component; most mental health practitioners believe bounce-back skills can be strengthened. Thankfully, we humans are, for the most part, a resilient lot.
The American Psychological Association has outlined ten markers of resiliency and, thus, ten ways to build bounce-back skills. One hallmark of resiliency is connecting with others. Like most of us, I resist reaching out to others when I’m feeling fragile, which is just what would help me feel stronger. Isolation isn’t healthy; one tends to stew in one’s own juices.
Si Se Puede
Believing that “this too shall pass” is an important attitude that enables us to carry on. When we view obstacles and challenges as temporary, we are more able to weather the storms.
Another ‘can-do’ mindset is accepting impermanence and change as inevitable. This belief allows us to better accept loss.
During crises, it is easy to lose sight of one’s strengths and resources. Getting back on one’s feet, however, requires that we employ whatever helped us in the past.
Finally, ‘yes, you can’ requires that you ‘do.’ Taking action should, however, be tempered with setting realistic goals. Packing up and moving cross country with only enough money to cover transportation isn’t usually a recommended course of action.
Depression wreaks havoc on one’s self-care regime. We tend to eat too much or too little, self-medicate, and abandon exercise as well as pleasurable activities when we hit rough patches in the road. Taking care of oneself is more important during turbulent times than when we’re coasting along between storms.
Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional
Years ago, I was regularly greeted by a sign in my chiropractor’s office that read: Suffering is Optional. Lately I’ve noticed this same sentiment in expanded form: pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. To prove that point, folks are getting tattooed (ouch) with this message. I don’t need a tattoo to remind me to work on my bounce-back skills; I know that building resilience will help me suffer less and cope more with life’s inescapable setbacks and disappointments.