The light and dark side of the brain Reply

Photographer Mary Lock’s depiction of ‘Depression’

by Karren Vergara

Depression is very common, to an extent is also normal,” psychologist Hong Lu says. “It’s normal to feel a type of emotional change that comes in the form of depression.”

In 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said depression affects 350 million people worldwide. The worst form of depression leads to suicide where one million lives are lost yearly.

In Australia, the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing showed 3.2 million people suffered from a mental health disorder in 2007.

“The more serious form of depression has a long-term affect. The unforeseen circumstances in life clients face as a continuum and show symptoms of lacking interest and energy. The natural tendency is to isolate themselves,” Mr Lu says.

“Everything becomes more of an effort. Anything outside of their comfort zone becomes anxiety provoking”.

A common form of depression emanates from joblessness. “People fall into a cycle of doing nothing. They’re unproductive, feel bored and spend a lot of time at home watching TV,” Mr Lu says.

Mr Lu helps clients by asking them to work toward a particular goal and poses questions such as, “What is your purpose in life?” and “What are you passionate about?” Once they’re able to establish this, Mr Lu says they have a sense of purpose and “start to take opportunities to continue on with their life and advance in a positive direction”.

Depression is not simply a state of mind. “It’s important to acknowledge that it’s not the person’s fault. There’s a complex interaction between the brain via chemistry and sometimes genetics,” says psychologist Sue Ferguson, who is currently undertaking a PhD in psychology at Macquarie University. She advocates the use of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as a technique that works effectively for people with depression.

The cognitive aspect recognises removing negative thoughts that have emotional consequences leading to anxiety and depression while the behavioural aspect uses techniques such as exercise.

“Cognitive behavioural type intervention affects your brain chemistry. This is more effective in the long term because the learning skills help prevent the next episode from happening,” she says, adding that taking drugs tend to be a short-term solution. Research shows low level brain neurotransmitters among people with depression can increase as a result of CBT with the result sufferers start to feel better.

The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing also found the high economic costs of mental health disorders are the biggest barriers to workforce participation. The Federal and State Government spent $5.14 billion on mental health representing 7.5 per cent of the total health spending.

Sarah Smith is the Program Coordinator of Mental Wellbeing at Work at Davidson Trahaire Corpsych (DTC), Australia’s largest provider of corporate psychology services such as counselling staff members on common mental health problems.

Companies from various job sectors approach DTC wanting to help build a mental health-friendly environment. “We get positive feedback from all participants. In the end, people feel more confident to approach someone they need to talk about mental health in their workplace and outside of work,” Sarah says.

According to Sarah, the long hours Australians work has an impact on their mental health. “There’s an increase in the number of hours people work. When you work long hours, you neglect exercise and don’t take a lunch break for example, which affects your diet. It comes down to having a work-life balance.”

Some of Mr Lu’s clients work 50 to 60 hours a week and the stress becomes overwhelming. “They fall into a cycle of not eating well, sleeping then going to work. What they need is a holistic balance.  Once there’s stability in their daily lives, emotional and mental balance is established,” Mr Lu says.

Females have a 50 per cent greater chance of becoming depressed more than men according to the WHO.

Naomi Robinson, 18, has suffered from chronic depression and anxiety since she was 16. “It’s the sort of thing that never really leaves you. You have some good periods and this is a really good period for me,” Naomi says.

“But even in those really good periods you have your down days. Some days are harder than others, when it’s harder to get out of bed in the morning or harder to sleep at night. Every time you get over another episode it’s like another renewal of your life.”

Depression took hold when Naomi moved to a music high school two years ago and experienced the pressure of a competitive environment. “A lot of musicians get affected by this condition. As a musician, it gets very competitive and it’s easy to put yourself down,” she says.

Naomi says that for a long time she hid the depression from everyone, but finally sought to help herself by contacting Headspace, a youth mental health foundation. But “you have to give it up to get over it” meaning that it’s important to tell about being depressed and that she says was part of her healing process.

Naomi is about to embark on a 12-day trek of Machu Picchu, Peru, to help raise awareness of mental health and funds for the Black Dog Institute. Naomi doesn’t just want to complete the trek successfully, she wants to show that people with depression can make the most out of life.

Naomi has raised over $4,000 for the Black Dog Peru Challenge and says if she can inspire one person with a mental illness, her purpose is achieved. 

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