Recent publicity for Mental Health Awareness Month and Depression Screening Day encouraged people of all ages and walks of life to become more aware of mental health and to go to a depression screening if they felt the need. A common feature at a depression screening is a checklist. The one I was given was printed by a large drug company and had 20 items to respond to. If I said yes to 5 or more of the feelings and felt that way for two weeks or more, I would likely be diagnosed with “major depression.” One media report stated that 70 percent of those who attend a depression screening will go on to receive treatment. What kinds of treatment will be offered? Treatment for depression today often consists of going to a professional who will give therapy and/or medication.

I agree with each of us pausing to assess our emotional well being, yet I am concerned with how quickly medication is given to individuals as the “quick fix” solution to problems. No single profession, culture, or book has all the answers. Some people feel medication helps with difficult times, and some find strength and comfort in counseling with a professional. Some people find different paths to emotional health. My view of helping would be assisting a person to see increased options in finding one’s own to path to health. I don’t know all the answers to the complete state of depression, but many factors contribute to what people feel. One could look at a range of contributing factors as well as a variety of solutions when looking at any difficulty in life.

Some professionals look at depression as the need of people to feel greater connection-to family, friends and the community, to the world around them. We need to have healthy relationships with others. We need to feel control over what is happening in our lives. We need to feel we have choices about what we can do each day.

Some see a link between society’s messages and depression. As a growing girl I was taught to let others talk first, to be kind and polite, to expect men to hold leadership and make decisions, to be concerned with my appearance, to place others first and myself last. I received little support to pursue a career that I felt passionate about. Do we wonder why girls who receive many of those messages end up feeling hopeless and unable to make decisions? Many women try to “do it all” at work and at home. Are we then surprised when they feel overwhelmed or guilty? When senior citizens feel worthless, are they not reflecting how society too often views them? Each of these feelings are listed as symptoms of depression. Is something wrong with the minds of these people or with what our society gives them?

My view of health is that it is all right to feel sad, lonely, tired, upset, or hurt. Periods of sadness can be overwhelming and incredibly dark. Yet it is okay to spend some days lying in bed or walking on a beach thinking, relaxing, and figuring out what to do. One’s physical and emotional body needs a rest and is crying out the need to do something different. Out of our periods of hopelessness, desperation and grief will come our own answers – solutions to what is causing despair and what we can do differently.

Some people find lifestyle changes helpful, such as increased sunlight, exercise, daily affirmations, visualizations, talking with friends, getting a pet, attending a workshop, reading a book, or making a career change. Writing, speaking up, and working to change what is bothering us, or working for rights of oppressed people, can make a difference. We can encourage people to ask for help, which may include letting someone else cook food, being relieved of household duties, or going for a walk with a friend. Professional counseling might promote self-awareness, positive relationships and choices. Numerous magazines and books promote ideas that people have found helpful for improving moods and relieving depression. Many people today find help from alternative approaches such as self-help books, acupuncture, yoga, and meditation.

I look forward to a time when instead of indicating something is wrong with my feelings, the checklist for depression will include questions such as these:

  • Do you have time for regular exercise that you enjoy?
  • Do you have relationships where you both give and receive support?
  • Do you have access to healthy foods, including carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables?
  • Do you have safe opportunities to try something new, seek an adventure, or accept a challenge?
  • Do you have things to look forward to each week?
  • What do you have control over in your life?
  • What kinds of things prevent you from doing what you want?
  • Do you have opportunities to pursue interests you enjoy?
  • Do you feel comfortable asking for help in time of need?
  • What would help you to achieve your dreams?

Then the treatment for depression could include helping people to overcome barriers-both internal and external-that are preventing them from living the full life that they would like. A book I read to my children tells of Florence Nightingale becoming depressed when her parents objected to her goal of becoming a nurse. She later went on to fulfill her dream.

My wish for mental health awareness month is that we would each look at ourselves, not judging our feelings or the things we are doing as wrong, not in fear of symptoms and labels, but in congratulating ourselves on how well we are doing given the stress and difficulties we live through each day. Mental health is not about finding a neighbor, relative or friend and getting them to seek professional help, but in reflecting on how we can each bring our own lives into better balance. We could evaluate for ourselves when we should ask for help so that we end more days feeling we have contributed something to those around us and yet met our own needs, too. I believe mental health success comes not when more people are depending on medications or one helping person to get through their days, but when more people are finding their own answers to what makes a day worth living.

Judene Shelley is a mother with a Master’s of Public Health Degree in Health Education. She has found writing to be one of her paths to health and to overcoming the disabling label given to her by well-meaning “helping professionals.” She dedicates this article to the psychiatrist in the mental ward who said “Have you stopped writing things down? That is a clinical sign of your problem” and “You should be on medication for the rest of your life.”