Ever since I came out to my family about my depression and anxiety a year ago, I never fail to forget the struggle it took to get them to accept my illness. I grew up in an average Muslim household in a community that was fairly conservative in terms of culture and religion. No one talked about mental illness. If you did, you were ‘one of the crazies’ and pretty much everyone around you would shun you. Gossip would spread that you were either incredibly non-religious or that you were doing it for attention or that you just weren’t trying hard enough to be happy.
What I personally know from experience: those aunties were completely wrong. I wasn’t ‘sad.’ Sadness is a very different feeling from being depressed. Everyone gets sad from time to time, like when a relative dies or when you don’t get your dream job. But depression is a whole other beast. Depression is kind of like a fog over you. It’s this cloud that doesn’t let you see or think properly. You’re always kind of there but not really, and it stays like that for a long time. Sometimes, it gets even worse.
So how can we tell the difference between being sad and being depressed? Here are some signs to look for within yourself and/or a loved one.
You have lost interest in the things you liked to do before. Let’s say you loved to bake all the time. But now, anytime you think about baking, you end up thinking, “Nah, I don’t think I want to. What’s the point? ” But losing interest is different than moving on from a hobby or trying something different. When you lose interest as a result of depression, it has feelings of hopelessness attached to it and apathy. You’re indifferent to whether you do something or not.
You have a decrease in energy. You would much rather stay in bed, not go out, not socialize, and not exert any kind of physical or mental energy. Regular tasks you used to complete effortlessly before seem almost impossible now. Things like, taking a shower or getting out of bed or brushing your teeth seem like difficult tasks.
This goes back to depression becoming like a fog. You can sort of piece things together, but you’re not functioning at your best. You forget things more easily, you find it harder to focus and it becomes difficult to start — let alone finish — any kind of task. You may see the effects of this at work or in school.
You end up feeling guilty about how you are feeling. You begin to have thoughts that you are worthless, you have thoughts of hopelessness, and you truly believe that no one cares about you. And having all these thoughts can cause you to feel guilty. You may feel guilty about having thoughts like this or you may feel like a burden if you share your feelings with someone. You may think that no one cares or wants to hear about your problems, and this creates isolation and feelings of loneliness.
You may either sleep less or sleep more. Sometimes, because of your decreased energy, you may end up sleeping more and lying in bed. You may feel exhausted and tired and sore. Other tim,es you may sleep less because anxiety may keep you awake. If there is a significant difference in your sleeping pattern, this may be a sign of depression.
Usually, when in depression, appetite is decreased. I know personally, for me, I didn’t have the energy to cook or go outside and grab something or even reach in the drawer next to me for a breakfast bar. Plus, my appetite was suppressed. Sometimes, though, for some individuals, appetite may increase.
Feelings or thoughts of suicide are never okay. These are never ‘normal’ thoughts to have. In depression, one may think that everyone has thoughts like these, but that is untrue. Apathy, sadness, and isolation all play into this. If you or anyone you know is thinking about suicide or has a plan to carry out suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Depression doesn’t know any race, religion, sex, culture or creed. It is a chemical imbalance, like most illnesses, but tends to be ignored in the desi community because the symptoms are invisible until it’s too late. It’s a disease with various bio-psycho-social factors and it shouldn’t be ignored because of reputation or status. Withholding treatment for mental illness because of dialogue like, ‘Someone may find out’ or ‘No one will want to marry you’ or ‘What will they think of us,’ are not good enough reasons. There’s NEVER a good enough reason to NOT get treatment for mental illnesses. These are real symptoms with real side effects and they can get worse if therapy or medication is not used.
Our culture creates a huge amount of stigma around discussing mental illnesses. It’s because those suffering are usually seen as crazy, non-religious, or lazy, and they simply need to pray more or try harder to be happy or not talk about it altogether. But the truth is, the more we talk about it, the more we can normalize that depression and anxiety DO exist in our community. Let’s rid our culture of the taboo our communities hold. Let’s normalize the treatments of these diseases. Let’s continue to talk about mental illness.
Dr. Rabia Toor is a recent graduate of Saba University School of Medicine. Her passion for social work and providing care motivated her to pursue an MD. After suffering in silence for many years, she believed it was time to speak out and be an advocate for the education and treatment of mental illnesses. Her first foray into the arts is a documentary called “Veil of Silence,” a film on the stigma of mental illness in the Muslim community. She hopes to continue her work in the future as a family physician specializing in psychiatric care. Between studying mindlessly for hours on end and being a social advocate, she loves eating Mexican food, crocheting, playing with her kitten and shamelessly discussing her Pinterest fails.