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Depression is Your Teacher

Yes, it’s true; depression can actually be a good thing. It is quite plausible that those of you who have experienced depression may think this statement is complete hogwash. In some way, you’d be right; after all, depression is more than just sadness. According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression is “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.”

In other words, it can be debilitating, and it can feel as if you’ve fallen into an abyss of excruciating feelings like emptiness, pain and loneliness. Not for the faint of heart. Given that millions of people around the world suffer through it, initiatives have been put into place to properly diagnose and treat it. For example, Mental Health America has developed National Depression Screening Day on October 6th, and individuals can quickly self-assess for depression here.

Now, let’s say it turns out that you are experiencing depression. What next? The good news is that there are many effective ways of working through it. For example, there is psychotherapy and many interventions that can specifically help with depression, such as:

  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

  • existential therapy

  • expressive arts therapy

  • narrative therapy

But let’s circle back to how depression can actually be a good thing. Consider, for a moment, that depression is not merely an issue of brain chemistry or biology, but a message - an incredibly important one - signaling to you that something in your life, whether internal or external, is simply not working. What if it were an alarm bell that is not suggesting that something is wrong with you, but that important needs of yours have gone unmet?

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections and a journalist who studied the causes of depression, claims in a radical fashion that, while we ultimately want to move beyond depression, the immediate goal is not to get rid of it; instead, we should try listening to it. Hari explains:

We need to stop trying to muffle or silence or pathologize that pain. Instead, we need to listen to it, and honor it. It is only when we listen to our pain that we can follow it back to its source - and only there, when we can see its true causes, can we begin to overcome it (p. 319).


The symptoms of depression can be frightening, but depression itself might not be the scary monster that we sometimes think it is. Perhaps it is more like a gentle giant that is wounded and needs the type of unconditional love and compassion one might give a hurt child. What if we asked our depression, with gentleness and curiosity, “What is hurting you? What do you need? How can I support you?”

It may take time to hear the message, but with patience and understanding, the answers just might reveal themselves. By identifying what we need and how we can make the necessary changes in our lives, our depression can ultimately become one of our greatest teachers.




 

Jennifer Liff is an intern and student at Lesley University who will earn her master's degree in 2024 in Mental Health Counseling with a specialization in Expressive Arts Therapy. Prior to Looking Glass Counseling, Jennifer worked with adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities and ran small psychoeducational groups to teach professional skills, emotion regulation and creative expression. Jennifer specializes in working with depression, anxiety, grief/loss, neurodivergence and high sensitivity. The modalities that guide Jennifer’s work include expressive arts therapy, person-centered therapy, narrative therapy and existential therapy.


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