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There’s an upside to feeling down

The extent of South African care for the mentally ill - with only a quarter receiving treatment - lags behind that of many comparable countries, said local experts. Photo: Michael Walker

The extent of South African care for the mentally ill - with only a quarter receiving treatment - lags behind that of many comparable countries, said local experts. Photo: Michael Walker

Published Nov 4, 2011


London - Throughout my life, I’ve had a tendency to get down. Not in a dramatic, suicidal, can’t go on way, but in a slow, steady, grey mist sort of way.

There are days when it’s hard to get out of bed, days when I don’t pick up the phone because I have nothing to say, and nights hoping that “please, God, can I wake up and feel just a bit better tomorrow?”

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Sometimes this has been prompted by something - work stress, health scares, family problems - but often its cause is less clear. Life can be good, yet I can feel bleak. I am like a piano with all the top keys removed or a painting with only shades of grey. Everything feels wrong, sad and pointless, and it can go on for months.

Suffice to say, it’s not fun. Not only is there the unhappiness itself, but I feel guilty that I’m miserable when I have so much to be happy about and frustrated that all I want to do is lie in bed when I should be out living.

But, most of all, I feel like a giant failure. For although statistics show more and more of us feel like this - figures suggest that depression in women has doubled over the past 40 years - there is no room for unhappiness in our modern world.

From magazine articles to TV adverts, the pressure is on us to be smiley, happy, successful people. Even David Cameron wants our happiness improved and measured like GDP.

The blues are something to be fought against and eradicated - with pills if necessary. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the number of prescriptions for drugs such as Prozac and Cipramil increased more than four-fold in the 18 years to 2009. I have been part of this number.

Diagnosed with “mild to moderate depression”, I’ve been prescribed antidepressants. They helped me out of particularly low patches, but I’ve never been comfortable popping pills for long periods. Deep down I don’t think I’m ill, in the way that people with severe clinical depression undoubtedly are. I just think that from time to time life gets me down and that maybe I should accept that that’s part and parcel of being me.

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Now a growing number of experts seem to agree, saying it’s time to stop seeing unhappiness as an illness and instead see it as a normal part of life we should learn from. And far from being a blight on your life, they say in some cases sadness can actually be good for us.

In March, Australian researchers found we think more intelligently and are more empathetic to others when sad. In tests, Joe Forgas, a psychology professor at the University of New South Wales, discovered that we think much more deeply about situations when we are down because of the way sadness affects the brain.

He also found sad people can be more empathetic. In experiments, happy people would tend to talk about themselves a lot, while people in low moods made more effort to listen to others.

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Other studies from the US and Holland found that people are happier and healthier after a period of depression than they were before it. One report even found women who’d had depression were more likely to live longer than those who did not, possibly because it made them look after themselves better.

All this does not surprise Dr Paul Keedwell, a psychologist and psychiatrist at Cardiff University.

In his book How Sadness Survived, he argues the fact that depression has not been eradicated by evolution suggests it must have benefits.

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“Depression is something no one would wish to experience, but in some cases it does actually strengthen people. I’ve had emails from loads of people saying depression helped them change their life course, whether it’s changing their work or getting out of a bad relationship.

“It can also make us more resilient and creative: the best art, writing, and comedy have come from people who have been in a dark place and can see the contrast between light and shade.”

The athlete Kelly Holmes has spoken about how depression in 2003 made her a stronger person, a year before her double-gold performance at the Olympics. And Aristotle believed depression to be of great value because of the insights it could bring.

Indeed, Dr Keedwell says depression’s main purpose is that it makes us stop and look at our lives.

Each time I’ve had one of my down patches, I’ve reflected on what’s been making me unhappy and, as a result, removed myself from jobs or relationships and addressed family situations causing me stress.

I’ve also adjusted my expectations. I’d put myself under pressure to have a high-flying career and a fabulous wardrobe, to be a perfect friend and daughter, to find the perfect man - and felt I was failing on all counts.

Now, I’m happy if work allows me to pay the bills and if I see friends once a week. As for the man of my dreams, he might turn up and he might not. It’s what Dr Keedwell refers to as “depressive realism”.

“Women in particular feel you’ve got to be the most amazing career woman, mother and sex goddess,” he says. “It leads to chronic stress and unhappiness.

“Depression makes you humble. It re-adjusts expectations, which can make us more content.”

And humility results in a better ability to bond with others. I’m sure I can relate to people’s problems.

Of course, there is a difference between periodic sadness or mild depression and severe depression, a debilitating illness needing medical treatment.

Yet for millions like me, the important thing is not to ignore your blues but to take time out, talk to friends or family and look hard at what might be causing it. Take medicine, too, if you think it will help, but you must address the root cause of the problem.

Your sadness can be a good thing. It forces you to take stock of your life. And the things you learn about yourself in the process will hold you in good stead for the rest of your life.

But, most importantly, don’t beat yourself up for getting down.

Getting sad doesn’t make you failure - it simply makes you human. - Daily Mail

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