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  • Dr. Lauren Fontenot

Is this normal or is it depression?

Today I’m writing an “answer” to a very common question for, well, everyone right now – by way of a friend who had this question asked of her. So, when does stress become something we can’t handle alone?

It’s a hard question to answer. While everyone can benefit from therapy, the issue is that many don’t. And I think that speaks to *a part* of the mental health crisis in America – being incredibly literate about aspects of mental health (e.g., self-care, mindfulness, and an Instagram full of tips from bloggers who discuss their own mental health journeys), but we’re unsure of when or how to take the steps towards acting, thinking and feeling better. We’re the first to encourage others to seek help with their mental health, but we’re the last to make the call. I’ve had many friends call me, outlining all their difficulties and symptoms, only to conclude, “but I’m fine … it’s not that bad” and write off therapy for another year. Or even worse, so many of the Veterans I’ve worked with thinking their taking up resources from others by turning attention on themselves.

Diagnostically, the symptoms of any disorder can be easily identified with a quick google search. Depression: loss of interest, sadness, difficulty concentrating, feeling worthless, loss of energy, changes in weight/appetite, changes in sleep, feeling restless or slow, and thoughts of harming oneself; However mental health professionals must also make a key determination in order to diagnose a mental health disorder: impairment in functioning. So today, I would like to argue that when asked the question, “is this normal or is it depression… anxiety… panic, etc.” impairment in functioning should be a bridge into “yes” and our step forward to ask for help.

Now, you might be thinking, “well of course if I had all those symptoms, I would know to get help!” But would you?

Can you not focus because of depression, or because you didn’t sleep well?

Did you not sleep well because of the dog, or because of all the distressing stuff you couldn’t turn off after watching the news at 11?

“Ok, sure, I no longer enjoy doing ‘XYZ’ but is anyone really enjoying 2020 in general?”

It’s easy to rationalize our symptoms one on one… it may take a trusted friend or provider to help us see the pattern. But by looking instead at our emotional, social and occupational functioning – we may be able to identify those patterns more readily – are we more easily angered or apt to beat up on ourselves? Are we short with our friends, kids, or spouse? Is our work less motivating – not because of Zoom fatigue, but because we just don’t seem to care anymore? In a world filled with information about mental health symptoms, medications, coping strategies, self-help books, and Instagram influencers, we need to start looking downstream at the impact our difficulties cause, not the impact on just ourselves. Because you’re right, you can muscle through but can your partner, your kids or your work do the same? If you’re not worth it – are they?

As we begin the “week after mental health awareness week” – maybe consider if it’s time for you, or a friend, or family member move from awareness to action. To start doing better rather than talking better.

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