WHEN DEALING WITH DEPRESSION
The importance of a friend and a smile
Rachel reached out and gently touched the hand of the woman sitting next to her as she listened. "I would never turn my back on my mother," Julie whispered, "but there are times I just want to wring her neck, and then I feel guilty. Mom has days where she just falls into some bottomless pit of despair, and it's all I can do to keep from falling in with her. I feel so overwhelmed." Several in the room nodded knowingly. "It's emotionally exhausting," offered Matt, "but you're a good daughter, you're doing a great job." "You are a gift to her," added Ellen. Julie looked up, her eyes rimmed with tears. "Thanks, you guys, I really needed to hear that," and then she smiled.
SOMETHING IN COMMON
Every Tuesday, this group of men and women come together to share stories, gain insight and even find some soothing humor in their own situations. Each has a family member struggling with depression, and while those in the room come from different walks of life, each has come to discover how much they really have in common.
In my private practice, I run a group specifically formed to support those coping with depression in a family member, a situation that can overwhelm the well-meaning and sympathetic caregiver. The goal is to provide them with strategies that will help them manage emotions and stress better, as well as give them an opportunity to make new friends and to make their voices heard. It's a framework that is built upon a new "positive psychology" movement that cultivates personal strengths instead of focusing on micromanaging shortcomings and disease. I've learned that there is an enormous amount of untapped strength and knowledge within a group, and I often feel privileged to watch it unfold in front of me. One woman, speaking of the years she spent with a depressed husband, reflected, "I was desperate just to be able to sit in a room and hear someone say ‘Let me tell you what my father/mother/husband/wife did the other day...' just to feel normal. I felt so alone." While depression can isolate, in a group setting it serves as a pivot for change to make life more manageable.
Depression, one of the most common, yet misunderstood maladies of our time, often takes hold when a person is dealing with emotional life transitions or other major health issues, such as anxiety disorders, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, so it can be overlooked. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that approximately 19 million adults suffer from some form of depression. Of adults over the age of 65 and not living in nursing homes, the NIMH estimates that three percent have clinical depression. Another 13 to 27 percent suffer at a less severe, but still significant level. As a result millions of adult children currently provide care or support in some way for an elder parent compromised by depression. Add to that the number of spouses tending to the needs of their soul mate, and the potential fallout is staggering.
A MEANINGFUL EXERCISE
Every week we begin with a recap of recent events, discuss new strategies, and then reflect on the good things life has brought.
A favorite exercise is something called "the gratitude visit," as taught by Martin Seligman, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a former president of the American Psychological Association.
First, each names a person for whom they feel particularly thankful, and then writes a letter detailing how that person has been a positive force for them. Next, the writer makes an appointment with the "gratitude" recipient and reads the letter in person. The visit is often spoken of as an emotional and meaningful moment in the relationship, and especially so when it involves an elder loved one who gets to hear how deeply appreciated they are.
As we ended our group a few weeks ago, Norma, a woman in her seventies, beamed as she revealed her own gratitude for having grand-children in her life "to keep me balanced and hanging on. The trick in this roller coaster life," she said, and grinned, "is hanging on with enough optimism and energy to get past the scary dips.
"But it sure is a lot less scary when you've got someone there to hold your hand."