A few years ago, my sister came to visit me in late February; as her plane prepared to land in Ottawa, the woman sitting next to her said ‘you’ll notice that at this time of year, almost everyone in Ottawa looks depressed!’ We smiled at that, as the truth is – the challenges of our cold wintry weather, shorter days, the grey days that frequent our winters, can in fact, impact our emotional lives. In our region, for most people, winter is also a season when our work and school lives are at their busiest; people are working under pressure, driving to work and commitments in winter weather conditions, while warding off the effects of less natural sunlight, and less natural relief from being outdoors.
For people who are struggling with periods of depression, as an ongoing challenge, or as an ongoing presence, depression is more than a temporary seasonal phase that comes, and goes, as the seasons change. And yet, what is outstanding today, is that so many people report that they feel depressed on a regular basis, and so many people are accessing medication for relief of their experience of depression.
How do we really understand depression? A current ongoing debate on mental illness and mental health vacillates between ‘nature or nurture’ theories – but many mental health workers are now landing on the understanding that it is ‘both nature and nurture’, which means that our likelihood of experiencing depression is a dynamic interaction between what we are born with – genetics, biology, and what we experience in life – our family, community and life situations. As the public discourse endeavours to de-stigmatize mental health challenges, including depression, the focus has become on mental health challenges as being an illness, vs. a weakness of the person, or something to be ashamed of. It is clearly nothing to be ashamed of – it is part of being human, a very normal, natural, and commonly experienced state that we all experience at some point, or at many points, in our life. At the same time, identifying it as an ‘illness’ can also contribute to an oversimplified attempt to ‘fix’ depression. It is important to pause and question our depression. It is important to ask “what is not going well in my life right now?” “Is there something I need to deal with…confront…change…rebalance?” For children, or youth, we adults need to ask that question while assisting them with their depression. Depression is a natural response to very challenging, difficult situations, or life experiences – such as ongoing tension in the environment, emotional or social oppression, or significant loss. It can also be a response to a life change that needs to happen – prolonged unhappiness in relationships or work situations in which we feel we have no control over, but cannot live well with either.
Symptoms of depression are alleviated by seeking more balance in life – it may be a seasonal need to seek more natural light, more time outdoors, more physical activity. For deeper depressions that mark a time in life, or a situation in life, it will require more reflection, more ‘grappling with’ what is not going right for us. It can require a guide to help us out, it may require accessing help and hope from others, it may require medication to alleviate the weight of depression, but it can change. We can see it as a part of what we are living, learn about ourselves from it, and find solutions for relief and transformation. People who emerge from a depression talk about how the depression changed them, how they look at life differently, how their priorities have changed – these changes can be an opportunity for re-engaging in life in a more sustainable and meaningful way. As a society, we can contribute to the de-stigmatization of depression by recognizing that we are all human, and depression is simply an example of our shared human experiences.