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Depression: Don't talk yourself out of getting help

Wednesday 8 February 2017

A group of young people sit talking in a library.
It's not always "just stress" when it never seems to stop.

About one in five Australians will experience a mental illness in any given year, and almost half of us will experience a mental health problem at some point during our lives. Despite these numbers, many people will wait months or even years before they seek out help.

Below are some of the common ways people talk themselves out of getting help for mental health problems like depression, and the reasons why they’re just not true. If any of these sound familiar to you, it's time to bite the bullet and get some professional advice.

It can't be depression – I'm not sad enough

Contrary to what many people think, mental illnesses like depression don't necessarily mean you're suffering from overwhelming sadness twenty-four hours a day. In fact, strong emotions may not be part of depression at all.

For many people, depression is experienced as the absence of feelings, an emptiness or numbness that they can't break out of. There may be moments of sadness, or happiness, or joy, but their default state becomes characterised by the inability to feel and a tendency towards apathy.

A question that is often asked, when doing an initial test for depression, is “have you lost interest in things you enjoy?”

Yes is an answer with obvious implications, but it's more likely that you're first response is far less decisive. A “maybe,” a “kind of,” or a “how would I know?” can mean there might be a problem brewing, and it might be worth talking to someone who can help you figure that out for sure.

It's not a real mental health problem – I'm just really stressed out at the moment

You ‘know’ you’re not depressed, because you know exactly why you're having a hard time right now. Work is crazy, you've got things gong wrong with your family and friends, and your house is a disaster area. You have reasons for feeling bad, and it's easy to rationalise away the possibility that something else may be going on because of that.

What you may not know is that some of the symptoms associated with depression and anxiety can make you feel like life is out of control. If you’ve got one of these conditions you might:

  • have slower thought processes and emotional reactions than normal
  • have decreased ability to focus and concentrate
  • try the same things over and over again when something goes wrong, instead of looking for new solutions
  • or have disrupted sleeping patterns, making you oversleep or have insomnia.

So even if you think that you’re just feeling stressed, and you can point out all the reasons why, depression or anxiety might be helping you to feel that way.

If you’ve been feeling stressed out constantly for two weeks or more, it’s time to look into the possibility that there’s something else going on.

It's probably not depression – I haven't thought about suicide

Suicidal thoughts are the sign of someone with a mental illness who has hit a state of crisis. There’s no doubt that if you are considering suicide, then you are not okay.

But just like you can be unwell with a cold and not need an ambulance, you can have a mental illness and not be suicidal or thinking about causing yourself harm.

There are many signs of mental illness, and recognising any one of them as familiar to you is enough of a reason to talk to someone about your mental health.

I can't be depressed - look at everything I've done

Often we think of people with depression as apathetic, listless and unproductive. We see them represented on TV and in movies as people who just sit on their couch and don’t do anything. They struggle to get things done at work or school and can’t interact with friends and family.  

In reality, there are many levels of anxiety and depression that can affect your mental health, and many people attempt to cope with their depression or anxiety by acting like everything is fine.

They might try to get more things done because it makes them feel like they’re in control. They escape into work, or socialising, because it means they don't have to engage with the roiling mass of feelings (or their absence) that's built up inside them. They are constantly searching for distraction, in the hopes that they don't have to address the deeper problems.

Additionally, some mental illnesses will alternate between incredibly productive highs and incredibly non-productive lows, allowing for bursts where a lot of things get done in rapid succession.

It's great to be productive, but there's more to life than simply being functional. If you're constantly working and never feel like you're getting somewhere – or if you're achieving constantly, but unable to accept praise and constantly feel like you should be doing more – then it's time to take a breath and consider whether your working towards a specific goal, or whether the goal is simply to work so you're constantly distracted.

It's not depression – I always feel like this

Mental illnesses like depression and anxiety can creep up on you, bit by bit, with each symptom hidden, rationalised away, or dismissed as a minor thing over weeks, months or even years. Before long, it becomes the new normal, and you get used to struggling and coping as best you can.

But it's not normal to feel sad all the time. It's not normal to consistently feel numb, or angry, or like you're barely coping with things. No matter how much you've adapted to it, it doesn't make it okay.

The benchmark for depression and other conditions is feeling down, sad, numb, or uninterested for a period of two weeks or more, especially when it hits the point where it interferes with your ability to function at home or at work.

That's it. Two weeks. That's the point where your bad mood, stressful time at work, or generally gloomy disposition may have crossed over into an actual mental illness.

So if you’ve been feeling any of the signs or symptoms of mental illness for two weeks, two months, two years or two decades, it’s time to speak to your doctor, or an organisation like beyondblue or Black Dog Institute. And remember, it’s never too late to seek help.

Surely someone would have noticed if things were really that bad?

Just because people know you well, it doesn't mean they're going to notice the early stages of mental illness. That slow creep that allows you to think it's okay, I'm always like this also makes it hard for other people to recognise what's going on. Sometimes, if they have noticed, it’s easy to evade their questions so well that they don't think to ask again.

And although things are improving when it comes to our understanding of mental illness, there is still a stigma attached. This creates a catch twenty-two: you're afraid to mention that you might not be okay, for fear of how your friends and family will react; they’re afraid of asking how you're really feeling, for fear of how you'll react to the suggestion that you're not.

If you feel like you're losing your grip on life and you're wondering why no-one has noticed, pay attention to the person who has noticed: you. Don't wait for someone else to confirm it for you – go talk to your GP or some of the other support networks that can help you figure out what's going on.

I feel bad right now, but things will get better when…

There is something extraordinarily tempting about the phrase I just need to get through this…

We think, “I just need to get through my project at work, and everything will be fine.”

Or, “I just need to get through my sadness, and then I'll snap out of it.”

Or, “I just need to make an effort to be happier.”

Or, “I just need to get to the end of October, and everything will calm down and I can start dealing with my problems.”

At the heart of all these examples is the same mindset: if I'm just a bit stronger, try a bit harder or hold out a little longer, things will worth themselves out.

The idea of strength can be tempting, because so many aspects of an undiagnosed depression can feel they're making you weak: you're tired all the time; you don't think as clearly; you're not motivated to do anything; it's harder to control your negative emotions.

But a mental illness doesn't make you weak, any more than having the flu does, and ignoring the possibility that you have one isn't strength. More importantly, if you do have a mental illness, you aren't going to be able to lower your head and power on through.

How to get help

If you've hit this point of the list and some of this sounds familiar, it's time to stop talking yourself out of it and get some professional advice. If you'd like to turn your maybe into something more certain, regardless of whether it's a yes or a no, then consider one of the following options.

  • 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) is a 24-hour confidential phone service that provides health advice to Queenslanders, putting you in touch with a registered nurse who can advise you about whether you might want to take the next step. Your call is confidential, like all medical records, and you are not required to give your name (although your gender and age are required, to have symptoms assessed).  
  • Talk to your doctor about your concerns and ask for an assessment or referral. Some general practitioners (GPs) have additional training and expertise in mental health. Search for a GP online or phone beyondblue on 1300 224 636.
  • Search for other mental health services, online or in your local area, using the Queensland Health website.
Last updated: 23 August 2017