MY DAD suffered with depression. It had its teeth into him for the greater part of his adult years (until lost in a settling fog of dementia).
We were aware of it as children, me, and my six brothers and sisters, but not by name. Born a sheep farmer, but eventually turning his back on the family farm, we knew he took tablets “for his nerves” – large blue ones – and we learned ‘invisibility’ during his long brooding silences.
He would sit, TV on, but his gaze above it, fixed on some distant point of regret and discontent outside.
Days like this we kept our heads down and lips buttoned; you could never be sure when a rage was brewing. Which could spear in any direction.
But old age softens people, and, with the years, the memories also soften. Dad learned control, gave up on the bouts of heavy drinking that fed his darkest moments, and found a contentedness of sorts. He died a decade ago and, by then, we had all made accommodation for ‘the tough years’ – a good man, flawed (but who is not?) and deeply troubled.
This story, of course, will be familiar to many. It is repeated behind so many doors.
The great malaise
Do a quick tally of ten friends, and, statistically, one of that ten will suffer a mental disorder like depression or clinical anxiety in any given year. Over a lifetime, of any random group of Australians, up to 45 percent – nearly half – will suffer one or more periods of mental ill-health.
Those figures waver a little from one research project to the next, but only marginally.
Of course, we are all aware of this because mental disorder – depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol disorders and suicide – touches directly and indirectly so many of us, so many families, friends and workmates.
For me, nearing retirement, I run out of fingers counting the friends and others close to me lost to suicide. (In Australia, the suicide rate is more than twice the national road toll.)
What’s behind this great malaise, this inner torment that affects so many, and that sits as a stubborn unwelcome reminder of the personal, social and financial pressures of modern living, of stress, disconnection, and helplessness?
And now, layered over this – and closely following the distress and devastation of the bushfires – comes the wrecking ball of COVID-19. How will we deal with the social and economic disruption, the financial uncertainty, hardships and dislocation that the coronavirus has brought, and that may yet endure long into 2021?
A post-COVID dawn
There are no easy answers. But we know (of course) that families and communities are feeling the strain; that the incidence of depression and chronic anxiety, and of alcohol and substance-use disorders, is increasing.
Some helplines report a three-fold increase in numbers of people reporting significant depression and anxiety problems during lockdown. Disturbingly, in Australia and worldwide, lockdowns have also bought a shocking rise in family and partner violence.
So, there is a job ahead.
Certainly, many of us will be struggling in this ‘new post-COVID dawn’. Few of us have experience of global catastrophe and even the strongest among us may be troubled. For those who experienced loss and trauma with last summer’s devastating bushfires, the arrival of COVID-19 must be almost too much to bear.
There are of course solutions. They are found in the bonds of the tribe, in the notion of ‘the long hut’. The outbreak of goodwill and of community support for local business, families and individuals that followed the arrival of the coronavirus was a heartening reminder of the strength and importance of community, of connection and humanity.
It reminds us that while we might expect Government and mental health providers to step in with wrap-around services to assist people struggling with uncertainty or financial hardship, or struggling with their mental health, you and me, we also have a role to play.
Our role is in “connection”; in being alert to signs of struggle in others and in reaching out.
There are red flags that can indicate depression and anxiety (and thoughts of self-harm). Isolation, disconnection and withdrawal – dropping off the radar with friends or becoming withdrawn and non-communicative for long periods at home – can be a sign. So too chronic sleeplessness (or excessive sleep), tearfulness, persistent irritability and negative self-talk.
Of course, occasional emotional distress and feelings of being depressed or anxious are part of being normal; healthy responses to life’s ups-and-downs. But if a low mood persists and gets in the way of coping with everyday things, this can indicate a deeper struggle.
We should be alert to it in ourselves – too many of us don’t seek help when needed – and be alert to it in others.
Extending an arm
If you have concerns that a friend or family member may be struggling, do ask them, “Are you ok?” Those three simple words of connection are incredibly powerful. And if you feel they may be harbouring thoughts of suicide, ask them straight up, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
Whatever answer they give, if you have concerns, encourage them to seek help. Suggest they call their GP for a chat, or that they call a helpline service. Then, later, follow up, and ask again, “Did you call, how did it go?
What you do in extending an arm of help across that chasm of helplessness that typifies chronic depression and anxiety, can be life-saving.
We might also remind ourselves that this difficult year, and this uncertain period in our lives will end, and we will have survived it. And our lives will resume much as they were, changed, sure, perhaps wiser, perhaps poorer, but also possibly enriched for what we discover about ourselves and our connection to community.
Our task is not to lose faith in “where we are”, to trust our strength and resilience – “we can do this” – and to look for the positives
Spending a few moments thinking about the little things we can be grateful for with “this day”, the little joys that add meaning to our lives, is one way of keeping our focus on the positives. (A glance over the heads of your family will do it.) Keeping this focus will help protect our mental health and wellbeing while we deal with the bigger challenges around us.
As communities, and as people, we can turn this challenge into an opportunity to grow stronger, to grow together, to rediscover connection and unity of purpose and emerge the better for it.
It provides strategies, information and advice for resilience, for positive thinking and for ‘active coping’; for recognising anxiety, depression and negative responses to stress and insecurity; for defusing frustration and anger; for addressing negative behaviours such as gambling, smoking and substance use and for recognising and assisting others struggling with depression, anxiety and damaging negative thinking.
Published by ADA Australia, this clinically-evaluated resource has sold tens of thousands of copies in the months since release in June to union groups, NGOs, and to large corporates such as Coca Cola Amatil, Wilson Group, Opal Group and many others.
The Little Blue Book of MENTAL HEALTH – COVID 19 Edition is available at Turn The Page in Cowes or via ADA Australia, firstname.lastname@example.org