Depression affects people from all walks of life, including the rich and the poor. It can be triggered by a number of issues, including work-related stress, the death of a loved one, job loss, divorce and so much more. So, how do you deal with the anxiety and the unease that it brings? How do you seek help when you feel like you’re drowning in depressing thoughts? If depression hurts, when is the pain too much and/or too little? When you’re struggling with depression, you need answers and help.
We chatted with Dan Lukasik, a lawyer who founded LawyersWithDepression.com, to get his health story and some answers, too. He battled with depression and won his life back. He also started a Web site to help others get information, tools and resources to do the same. Here, he shares what he’s learned about depression and anxiety with the Beehive.
The most important thing Lukasik wants you to know: “Learn that you are not hopeless in the face of depression.”
The Beehive (BH): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about LawyerswithDepression.com?
Lukasik: I am a 49-year-old attorney in Buffalo, N.Y. I grew up in a small town outside of Buffalo and am one of five children. I was diagnosed with major depression when I turned about 40. Three years ago, in 2007, I went looking on the Internet to try to find a website which sought to help judges, lawyers and law students who struggle with depression. To my amazement, I couldn’t find one. So, I created one.
At the time, I was told by everyone that it was a very bad idea and that it would ruin my career. It has not ruined my career and it has gone on to wide readership, not only nationally but from around the world. The website seeks not only to inform, but to provide a sense of support and meaning to those struggling with depression. Last year, I created a companion blog, which is my take on issues involving stress, anxiety, depression, values, and health. Whereas the site is geared more towards people in the legal community, my blog is well suited for everyone.
BH: How common is depression?
Lukasik: There are 120 million people worldwide who suffer from depression. Approximately 25 million people suffer from depression in this country. Throughout one’s lifetime, the risk for major depression is approximately 25 percent. Depression is the leading cause of disability, both globally and nationally.
BH: What causes depression?
Lukasik: Depression is usually a complex interplay of genetics and environment. There have been several studies which confirm depression tends to run in families. In addition, there is a large environmental influence. People with depression have been shown to have either abusive or emotionally disturbing childhoods. Finally, one’s environment after leaving home and going out into the world can contribute to depression.
Another factor that is being looked at in modern research is the role that stress plays in depression. It is thought that during this fight-or-flight response stimulated by stressful events, the brain and body dump neuro-chemicals and hormones into the body at large rates—particularly the hormone cortisol which stays in one’s blood stream if the stress is not relieved. Cortisol is shown to wreak havoc in the brain and contributes to the shrinking of the hippocampus, which is involved in how we remember events.
BH: What advice do you have for someone who thinks they may be suffering from depression or anxiety but may be hesitant to seek medical help?
Lukasik: Unfortunately, as many as 80 percent of people are not currently receiving treatment for depression. The consequence is that depression usually does not “go away,” or resolve itself on its own. People usually need intervention to address the causes of the depression or anxiety. For some people, that may include only talk therapy or psychotherapy. The point of this is to address the distorted, negative thinking about oneself and one’s world, which creates the depression.
For those who are suffering more deeply, or have become incapacitated by depression, it is more likely that, in addition to therapy, anti-depressants may need to be added to one’s treatment course. In addition, it is important to remember the stigma that is involved with depression and anxiety and that people with depression usually have an accompanying anxiety disorder. Research has shown that people with depression have a 60 percent rate of anxiety, as well. Depression and anxiety disorders are nothing to be ashamed of, [because] they are real medical conditions that demand intervention if you are to start feeling better.
BH: What are some realistic techniques for managing depression and anxiety throughout the day?
Lukasik: First, it is important to think of the day and how we will structure it. Many people with depression feel helpless and hopeless and their day steam rolls over them. It’s important to regain a sense of control to prevent that from happening. First and foremost, it’s important for people to schedule concrete activities throughout the day that will take them out of their depressive thinking. Because depression is such a lonely and isolated condition, I find it very helpful to schedule meetings and/or coffee or lunches with people. Once it’s set in stone, it becomes harder to avoid.
I also encourage people to read positive books and literature. Too many people spend too much of their time engaging in junk information and/or entertainment, such as surfing the net, reading newspapers, etc. While these behaviors in and of themselves are not harmful, to a person struggling with depression they are not particularly nourishing or supportive.
Exercise must also be a part of most plans to recover from depression. In the book “Spark,” by Dr. John J. Ratey, [he] lays out a powerful case that exercise has dramatic effects on the human brain and nervous system for those suffering from anxiety and depression. It has been shown that anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication effects are boosted by exercise. It is believed that exercise goes to the heart of the fight-or-flight problem involved in depression. [It helps] relieve and dump any of those chemicals out of the body so that the brain is better able to manage stresses.
BH: Are there proactive steps that you can take to help make an episode of severe depression less likely to occur?
Lukasik: Several recent efforts have been focused on the issue of resilience. One way to think about this is that one needs to develop as many skills and life-style management techniques as possible to ward off an episode of severe depression. It’s also important to recognize the risk if someone has a genetic history of depression in their family, as well as a troublesome childhood. This should highly motivate someone to take proactive steps to prevent severe depression.
It’s also important to educate yourself. There are many informative books on the topic of depression that would provide an overview of what kind of skills you would need to ward off depression. The best book that I have seen on this topic is by Dr. Richard O’Connor called, “Undoing Depression: What Therapy Cannot Teach You and Medication Cannot Give You.” In the book, he suggests that people with depression change our vicious circle. We keep doing the same destructive things over and over again which supports depression, because we don’t know how to do anything else. It is important to learn that even though you are not to blame for your depression, you are responsible for recovery and prevention of it. Learn that you are not hopeless in the face of a depression. There are several proactive steps you can take that will empower you to resist depression such as surrounding yourself with positive and supportive people.
Moreover, given the powerful influence of stress and the triggering of other risk factors such as genetics and an abusive childhood, you may have to consider your occupation and whether and to what degree it is stressful. While stress can’t be altogether avoided, and is indeed healthy in appropriate doses, one may have to consider leaving a job that is too stressful.
BH: What advice do you have for the loved ones of those who may be battling with depression and/or anxiety?
Lukasik: Many loved ones, partners or spouses in particular may feel they are to blame for the depression or anxiety. They usually take it personally and feel that the loved one is simply “unhappy” and that they are particularly unhappy with the loved one or partner. The loved one has to begin to learn that this is not the case, and that depression is an illness and needs treatment. A great book for those people to read is, “What to do When Someone You Love is Depressed” by Mitch Golant.