How do you know if you've recovered from depression?
OPINION: Recovery is the goal for people who are going through depression – but is a full recovery really possible?
For me, postnatal depression grew into a long-term problem and, for many years, recovery seemed like a pipe dream. It's only recently, after finally accepting treatment and help, that I feel far enough from the depths of depression to suspect I'll be OK.
In my case that recovery means feeling things again. My depression brought with it a terrible numbness, and it's quite amazing to once again feel a range of emotions, from real joy to short bursts of temper and, most importantly, hope.
But recovery looks different for everyone.
* Depression: does it originate in the immune system?
* Depression sufferers reveal what not to say to them when they are down
* Preventing depression in people who have never had it
* Dealing with depression, a mother's view
"There are certain symptoms of depression – like persistent low mood, loss of interest in things, lack of motivation, self-critical thinking and physical changes to your appetite, sleep and energy levels – and one part of recovery is having those things go away," says Dr Stephen Carbone from Australian depression support organisation Beyondblue.
"But what a lot of people are looking for is the ability to get back to their usual life. Many would say that being treated and then being able to get on with your life (even if some symptoms recur) is recovery. Recovery is really personal: it depends where you set the bar."
The ways in which each of those people's depression affects them varies significantly. Some will have one wave of the illness and never see it return, while others will face it for a longer period of time.
"Different people experience depression in different ways, and from mild to moderate to severe," Dr Carbone says. "A lot of people will only experience a period of depression once in their life, but a significant number of people will have recurrences at different times."
This can make it difficult to know whether a recovery is sticking around for the long term.
"Because depression is a condition that can often recur, people can feel like they need to take ongoing steps to manage it," says Dr Carbone.
"This often means applying the lessons learnt during their treatment; someone might have learnt that sleep deprivation puts them at risk of a relapse, so they now know to get better sleep at night. Someone else might now know they need regular physical exercise to keep them well.
"Other people might need ongoing counselling; while some people need several sessions and they're better, others need top-ups on a semi-regular basis.
"Medication can also be protective against further relapses of depression.
"The biggest thing to remember is that it's really important to get treatment. You can get back to a better place than what you've been in at the height of depression, and for a lot of people it can bring you back to where you were before."
That treatment – in one or more forms, perhaps counselling, medication and management of various lifestyle factors – is vital in taking steps towards recovery.
I once interviewed someone who'd been through depression many years ago, and he referred to his recovery like this: "Staying well is something I have to work on every day."
I can relate. I'm doing well, but still don't know whether to refer to my experience of depression as completely resolved or in remission. I guess only time will tell – and in that time, I'll do everything in my power to stay well.
Where to get help:
- Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354
- Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757
- Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116
- Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666
- Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
- Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email email@example.com
- 0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
- Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
- Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
- Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).
Sydney Morning Herald