During September and October of 2003 three different NYU students committed suicide, all by jumping from upper floors. Here in Bangalore in November, a fifteen year-old girl killed herself.
Most of us probably know someone who’s taken his or her own life. And we’ve all heard of high-profile artists and performers committing suicide, people like the rocker Kurt Cobain or the American poet Sylvia Plath.
Why would anyone want to take their own life? It’s a difficult question to answer. Yet maybe you would too, if you felt compelled to end the unbearable pain and anguish you were suffering. These feelings (pain, anguish, and despair) in unbearable proportions are usually associated with people who are depressed.
Dr. David Burns writes, “Depression has been called the world’s number one public health problem…Depression can kill you. The suicide rate, studies indicate, has been on a shocking increase in recent years, even among children and adolescents.” Depression
is thought to be the result of both biological (nature) and environmental factors (nurture), but it isn’t yet fully understood. One thing is clear—depression alters your outlook on life. You may feel a general lack of energy, low self-esteem, and no longer enjoy the things that interested you. The world seems like it has changed, but what really changes is your perspective. Yet when you’re depressed though, it’s hard to see that.
A teacher from New York City shares her experience, saying:
“Sometime after therapy started, I was feeling overwhelmed by the depression and I remember lying down a lot and not able to do much beyond what was absolutely necessary.”
I knew it was chemistry…always hated chemistry
Scientists have begun to understand some of the physiological factors involved in depression. Nerve cells in our brain communicate with each other using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Researchers have theorized that serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrene are the three neurotransmitters that play a role in mood disorders.
So what actually causes depression? Researchers are still not clear but theoretically depression could be caused by an excess or deficiency of a neurotransmitter or its receptors. Most of the current anti-depressant medications target the neurotransmitter serotonin and turn up the serotonin levels in the synapse. Prozac, for example, blocks the “reuptake pump” for serotonin and builds up the serotonin levels in the brain.
While it is not exactly clear why and how anti-depressants work, they do work. Studies have shown that a combination of psychotherapy and medication works best for depression.
So, while depression is a painful illness, the good news is that it can be successfully treated.
I’m trapped, I can’t get out
If you’ve ever been depressed or known a depressed person, they will tell you that they don’t feel like themselves anymore. They feel trapped in a rut and don’t love themselves. Low self-esteem, coupled with the feeling of being trapped, can generate suicidal thoughts. If these thoughts are not checked (through therapy and/or medication), a depressed person might attempt suicide.
Spiritual writer Fr. Ron Rolheiser notes that in these cases it is not really a case of despair, which in earlier days the Catholic Church tended to describe in terms of sin. “In most instances, suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a woman who throws herself through a window because her clothing has caught fire. That’s a tragedy, not an act of despair.”
Come and Let your Light Shine
Because of what depression does to the mind, it often seems like nobody can help you or that whatever you do, you can’t get out of it. Getting out of depression means lifting the dark clouds in the mind so that the sun can shine again. The light shines in spurts until suddenly, one day, the light begins to shine brightly.
I think this is the most difficult part of getting out of a depression—believing that you’re not back at square one every time you slip and seemingly slide downwards. The reality is that, as you emerge, you suffer temporary setbacks but you don’t slide all the way back.
The best part of getting out of a depression is the wonderful feeling of hope you get and the renewed love for life. Often, people who get out of a depression talk about feeling the best they ever have in their lives.
Maybe living isn’t such a bad option after all.