For women – and men – with de­pres­sion


Mental ill­ness, in all its var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions, is a heavy bur­den to bear. Cer­tainly for the suf­ferer her­self. But, also for those who suf­fer along with the one af­flicted with mental ill­ness — fam­ily and friends. It’s an ill­ness that’s still re­garded with a stigma by many.

My thoughts for the present col­umn on mental ill­ness re­fused to jell un­til I picked up a new book writ­ten by Maura Han­ra­han, the award-win­ning author of Tsunami: The New­found­land Tidal Wave Dis­as­ter. It’s en­ti­tled Spirit and Dust: Med­i­ta­tions for Women with De­pres­sion.

De­pres­sion af­fects women and men dif­fer­ently; there are dif­fer­ent causes and dif­fer­ent ef­fects. Han­ra­han di­rects her book, made up of med­i­ta­tions from Chris­tian women mys­tics, at women liv­ing with longterm or chronic de­pres­sion.

She uses her own ex­pe­ri­ence, writ­ing, “Episodes of se­ri­ous de­pres­sion took over my life three times. The last was over four years ago and I have en­joyed life as never be­fore ever since.” She also uses the ex­pe­ri­ence of other women to ex­plore both the prac­ti­cal and spir­i­tual as­pects of de­pres­sion.

I asked Han­ra­han if men can also profit from her book.

“At its core,” she re­sponds, “de­pres­sion is de­pres­sion. The bone-crush­ing feel­ings that are at the cen­tre of de­pres­sion are there in both men and women. Per­haps that’s why some men can re­late to the book.” I, for one, have ben­e­fit­ted greatly from and highly rec­om­mend her book.

I won­dered if faith in God, how­ever God is un­der­stood, plays a role in help­ing the suf­ferer cope with, and per­haps heal, de­pres­sion.

“It could go ei­ther way,” Han­ra­han says. “It could be an­other force of per­sonal op­pres­sion, as or­ga­nized re­li­gion of­ten is, or it could be a prop, some­thing to lift you up, or even an agent of heal­ing.” The Chris­tian women mys­tics re­garded God as “ love, mys­tery, mother, fa­ther, but al­ways love. They were able to re­al­ize that no mat­ter what, God had not aban­doned them; God was there with them.”

I per­son­ally have of­ten won­dered about why the “why” ques­tion, in re­la­tion to de­pres­sion, is so very dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to an­swer. Pat an­swers just will not do.

Han­ra­han has a use­ful an­swer to this trou­bling ques­tion: “It’s so hard to an­swer be­cause we can never be cer­tain of the an­swer. And maybe be­cause ev­ery de­pres­sion has more than one cause: ge­net­ics, trauma, bad luck, too much stress, lack of sup­port, poverty, and so on.” In­deed, she sug­gests that “the bus strike in St. John’s is con­tribut­ing to de­pres­sion in many peo­ple be­cause they can­not take part in life as they did a few months ago.”

She her­self has asked the same ques­tions many times. “ When I stopped in­tel­lec­tu­al­iz­ing it and deconstructing the ‘why’ of it, I got more en­ergy to use on heal­ing my­self. I was able to fo­cus on cop­ing with the ef­fects of de­pres­sion and learn­ing what I could do or what I could try to pre­vent re­lapses. But maybe ‘why’ was a stage I had to go through to come to grips with it.”

Ther­apy and an­tide­pres­sants have the po­ten­tial of help­ing some suf­fer­ers. How­ever, they only marginally helped Han­ra­han, which again makes me won­der. She feels that, on a “more mys­ti­cal level it al­most felt like the de­pres­sion was a vis­i­tor that had come to me and left when it was fin­ished with me. It was as if the de­pres­sion had some un­known pur­pose that it had ful­filled and was now leav­ing.”

In­ter­est­ingly, Han­ra­han found that cog­ni­tive ther­apy, or chang­ing one’s thought pat­terns, helped her pre­vent re­lapses. In­volve­ment with sup­port groups can be very in­spir­ing, if noth­ing else. She learned from her ex­pe­ri­ence that “peo­ple with de­pres­sion and other mental ill­nesses are so re­source­ful and re­silient.” Fi­nally, love, whether the love of a spouse or God, can play a sig­nif­i­cant role in the suf­ferer’s jour­ney to well­ness.

Han­ra­han draws strength from the Chris­tian women mys­tics, who re­mind her of God’s love. Blessed Ju­lian of Nor­wich said, “All shall be well.” Saint Jane de Chan­tal said, “Be gen­tle with your­self.” Saint Teresa of Avila said, “Let noth­ing dis­turb thee, let noth­ing af­fright thee.” Han­ra­han char­ac­ter­izes their sen­ti­ments as “sim­ple yet pro­found stuff and very much worth dwelling on. So com­fort­ing.”

Some years ago, while I chat­ted with a psy­chol­o­gist, he asked me, “Bur­ton, what would you do if you had a bro­ken leg?” “Go to a doc­tor,” I replied. “ Well, then,” he asked, “wouldn’t you do the same thing with a ‘ bro­ken mind’?”

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