Psychology for Writers: Depression

We’ve all felt sad, lost, or hopeless at some stage in our life. It’s a natural part of the 10,000 highs and 10,000 lows Buddha predicted life would involve. Depression, like so many psychological conditions, takes a normal human emotion and expands it until it feel overwhelming and never-ending. Depression the second most prevalent mental health condition humanity experiences (anxiety is the first). Around 1 million Australian adults have depression and it affects more than 15 million American adults, and if it’s so prevalent in our population, then it’s going to appear in our books. So if you’re going to write about it, then you need to make sure your words are accurate and realistic, which is where PsychWriter comes in.

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What Your Character will Experience

  1. Depressed mood

The feelings of sadness, emptiness and hopelessness are the hallmarks of depression, but it will be experienced differently by each person. For some it will mean feeling ‘blah’, having no feelings, or feeling anxious. For others, it translates to physical complaints, like bodily aches and pains. Many individuals report or exhibit increased irritability e.g. persistent anger, a tendency to respond to events with angry outbursts or blaming others, an exaggerated sense of frustration over minor matters. Indeed, in children and adolescents an irritable or cranky mood may develop rather than a sad or dejected mood.

  1. Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities

This criteria of depression is nearly always present, at least to some degree, and is one way depression will translate into behaviour. Your character may report feeling less interested in hobbies, ‘not caring anymore’, or not feeling any enjoyment in activities that were previously considered pleasurable. People around your character, like friends and family, often notice this change and the associated social withdrawal e.g. a formerly avid artist no longer paints, a child who used to enjoy soccer finds excuses not to practice. In some individuals, there is a significant reduction from previous levels of sexual interest or desire.

  1. Appetite change

Appetite change may involve either a reduction or increase in appetite, sometimes leading to significant weight gain or loss. Some depressed individuals report that they have to force themselves to eat, whilst others may eat more and may crave specific foods e.g. sweets or other carbohydrates.

  1. Sleep disturbance

Sleep disturbance is present in a high proportion of cases. Your character may either have difficulty sleeping or sleep excessively. If insomnia is present, they may wake up during the night and then having difficulty returning to sleep, or they may wake too early and be unable to return to sleep. If your character is oversleeping (hypersomnia), they may experience prolonged sleep episodes at night or increased daytime sleep. Interestingly, sometimes the reason that individual seeks treatment is for disturbed sleep, rather than depression itself.

  1. Fatigue

Decreased energy, tiredness, and fatigue are common in depression; even the smallest tasks seem to require substantial effort. For example, your character may find just the act of washing and dressing in the morning exhausting, and it can take twice as long as usual.

  1. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt

People experiencing depression may experience a sense of worthlessness or guilt, usually a product of unrealistic negative evaluations of one’s worth or guilty preoccupations over minor past failings. These individuals often misinterpret neutral or trivial day-to-day events as evidence of personal defects and have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for events outside of their complete control.

  1. Difficulty concentrating

Your character will probably experience an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or make even minor decisions. They may appear easily distracted or complain of memory difficulties. In children, you might see a drop in grades, while in elderly individuals, memory difficulties may be mistaken for early signs of a dementia (pseudo-dementia).

  1. Thoughts of death

Depression is a painful place to be — the feelings of sadness, stress and guilt are excruciating and can seem unending — which means thoughts of death, suicide or suicide attempts are common. Motivations for suicide may include a desire to give up because it all seems hopeless, a belief this is the only way to end this painful emotional state, an inability to foresee a positive future, or the wish to not be a burden to others. Thoughts can range from a wish to not wake up in the morning, to transient but recurrent thoughts of committing suicide, to a specific suicide plan.

Your Character and their World

As with any psychological diagnosis, depression doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is multiply determined by a variety of factors. Your character’s family history of depression, and countless other mental health issues, is a risk factor. The presence of family conflict, child abuse, separation, trauma or family illness all increase the chance of developing depression. If your world is defined by social disadvantage such as poverty or unemployment, then the odds just went up too. Depression also likes to tag along with other illnesses, such as anxiety, substance misuse or chronic illness.

Alternatively, the likelihood of developing depression, or the course of depression, can be buffered by several factors. These are largely environmental (there’s not a lot we can do about our genes), so are likely to be part of your story world. Social connectedness is a protective factor for depression — supportive relationships with at least one parent, good friends, and simply perceiving social support will have a positive impact. Optimistic thought patterns, yep, good old positive thinking, can change the trajectory of depression. Developing effective coping skills — such as social skills or problem-solving skills — is another. And let’s not underestimate the power of achieving something…give your character a win or two and watch their mood lift.

Treatment

Because depression is so diverse, there’s no one proven way that people recover from it, so it’ll be different for everyone. Generally, recovery will involve a mix of psychological therapy, antidepressant medication and lifestyle changes.

Therapy

Therapy aims at helping an individual change their thinking patterns and improve coping skills. There’s a host of research on the unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that maintain depression, and therapy aims at identifying them (very often the thoughts tend to be automatic and/or unconscious) and changing them.

Medication

There’s a lot of information out there about antidepressant medication, some is true, some lacks rigorous scientific basis. Antidepressant medication affects our brain chemistry in complex ways, so complicated that researchers are still figuring out the details, but there is a truckload of statistics out there proving antidepressants can be very useful in the treatment of moderate to severe depression.

Life Style Changes

Diet and exercise are both proven to improve the symptoms of depression, so getting your character moving and eating a balanced diet can only help. Alternatively, the research base for relaxation training and mindfulness is growing every day. The same goes for developing our social networks — enlisting the help of family, making friends, or going to a support group — are all protective factors.

Do you have a character with depression? Has this helped make them more authentic? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

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Did you know…? I also write fiction! My debut young adult romance was just released. If you love epic stories of a love that defies boundaries then make sure you visit my author website www.tamarsloan.com.

 

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