“Everyone has a story that will break your heart. And, if you’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring you to your knees”
My mother stayed in bed almost every single morning, while we all got ready for school. Before he left for his own busy day of work, my father made our lunches and made sure we got off to the schoolbus. We knew at some point later in the morning, my Mum would have a slow moving readjustment to the world and would eventually emerge from the bedroom. Her day was usually one that was filled with cigarettes, books, and solitude.
My mother’s mood seemed to always colored by her past. Her early life was filled with the trauma of being shipped off to boarding school as a toddler, only to see her mother for a brief period each summer. She often recounted the pain of having no physical contact or emotional support from adults during those school years. The Second World War made a bad situation worse, with bombings and rationing, and general uncertainty about the future.
In her early twenties she met and married my father. The two of them came to Canada in search of a better life, but my mother’s demons seemed to follow her across the ocean. Although she had four children, a loving marriage, and a beautiful home, she always seemed to be trying to escape from some sort of pain.
Her craving to be alone changed the course of my life. Early in my childhood, my parents gave up their house in a busy, supportive community of family friends to move to a house in a wooded and remote area. My mother had decided that she needed more “privacy”. Her time alone was voluminous and she lessened her social outings significantly over the years. Our family also reduced our social connections and we tended to spend much of our time at home, isolated from outside support.
When I learned more about mental illness as an adult, I gained an entirely new perspective on my mother’s choices – her behavior matched perfectly with the symptoms of depression. We didn’t talk about my mother’s issues. Sadly, she was never treated, and likely suffered much of her life in silence.
My mother was a beautiful, articulate, well-educated, kind and loving woman, who touched the lives of many people. But she also lived with painful feelings that she could never truly escape.
I believe depression ultimately was what ended her life. Although she officially died from kidney disease, her body had broken down from a sparse diet, too many cigarettes, and too much alcohol. These were the tools of what Johann Hari would characterize as, “someone who can’t bear to be present in their own life”.
One in five people will experience symptoms of mental illness throughout their lifetime. This includes our daughters, sisters, mothers, friends and the many other women in our life. Having friends or family who are suffering from mental illness can also add more to the already significant mental load that most women carry.
Women are at higher risk than men for mood and anxiety disorders. Mood disorders include depression and bipolar disorder, but depression is diagnosed most often.
Depression will rank as the second leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020. This is even more alarming when you consider that according to The World Health Organization, women are twice as likely as men to develop depression.
Depression is not just feeling sad. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, symptoms can include:
– feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty, or anxious
– feeling disinterested in activities that you previously enjoyed
– withdrawal from friends or family
– difficulty concentrating, focusing, or making decisions
– problems with day-to-day functions like eating or sleeping properly
– increased use of alcohol or drugs
Women also have some unique types of depression. We’ve all likely heard about postpartum depression or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), but women over 50 also have a unique risk of developing a specific type of depression related to menopause.
Mood swings, irritability and problems sleeping during the menopausal transition are normal. Having feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or loss of enjoyment in life are not. If you are struggling with any of these issues, you may be experiencing what’s known as perimenopausal depression. If you feel like you have developed any of these symptoms, please make sure you talk to your doctor.
Regardless of type, depression is treatable and with the right care and support, many people do get better.
Here’s what we can do to help the women in our life that may be suffering:
1. Encourage them to seek treatment. Depression is not “all in your head”, a phase, and you will not “just snap out of it”. Professional care is important.
2. Learn more about depression and mental illness. Even better, listen to the experiences of those dealing with mental illness. If you feel uncomfortable or don’t know where to start, begin with empathy.
3. Don’t take it personally. This is a tough one, but keep in mind that your loved one’s behavior is coming from a place of illness – it’s not about you.
4. Make yourself available but don’t forget boundaries. We need to understand how we can help, but also how to keep ourselves healthy in the process.
And finally, knowledge is power. Here are some additional resources related to depression and mental health:
Like many of you, I have been profoundly impacted by a loved one’s mental health struggles and know how hard it can be to help.
I propose that we can start by talking more openly and honestly about mental health. We have to recognize that even though it may feel like we have moved passed the stigma, secrecy and shame still exists around mental illness. We need to talk about this.
And if you’re struggling, please reach out for help – we care about you and your well-being.
Your sister in health,
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