Nonverbals of DepressionMay 22, 2023
ONE COLD NIGHT
It was a cold Sunday in February when the email came. The school never sent emails on Sundays. The very thought sent a chill down my spin. No, please, not another.
Clicking open the email, I (Sienna) began to read. I immediately thought of my friend. She would be heartbroken. He was her best friend. They were inseparable. They had plans to take a trip after graduation and attend the same college. And now all of that was gone.
He was gone.
The night before, we were all at the school dance. It was her junior year, my freshman. The high school sat at the base of the Rocky Mountains, covered in snow. The base pounded as we danced, shouting over the loud music to each other, trying to have fun despite being in the midst of a suicide cluster. So many students at our school had died in such a short amount of time. One suicide affects 150 people directly and even more indirectly. So many students were struggling and statistics show that fewer than half of young people with depression will ever receive treatment. Our school was a mess. Depression and suicide were rampant.
It was the night of the school dance, that bitter cold night, that he too died.
The school didn’t handle the situation well. They wouldn’t let us students have a memorial, but instead went back to business as unusual far too quickly.
His death turned her world upside down. My friend, who was such a nice person and smart athlete, took it really hard. 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health challenge that will significantly impact their life. For my friend, she was overcome by grief and anger, becoming a completely different person.
In the midst of this, I was overwhelmed and confused, trying to figure out what to do next. I wanted to help. I wanted to bring hope. I wanted to stop teen suicides. I wanted to change the world.
This launched me into becoming vigorously involved in multiple suicide prevention programs and groups. Today, as a mental health advocate, Gail and I visit schools to speak with students as well as educate adults on how to identify signs of depression.
It’s really hard watching a family member or friend deal with depression. If we can talk about it and remove the stigma, creating an environment where people feel safe to face their struggles, then they are more likely to live healthy lives.
SIGNS OF DEPRESSION
Communication is so important. Someone with depression may not overtly tell you. However, they are communicating this struggle nonverbally. If you notice a family member or someone you know struggling, here’s what you should look for:
- Behavior changes: Someone with depression will usually sleep noticeably more or less than normal. They may have significant weight loss or gain. They will disengage from fun activities. They may act recklessly or display risky behaviors.
- Intensity and duration: It’s normal for someone to have bad days or feel sad because of something happening in their life. What is not normal, and is considered a sign of depression, is when a person is incredibly upset regularly. This means they are feeling down for several weeks at a time. It is intense and ongoing.
My friend started drinking, skipping school, and failing classes. I remember how she stopped showing up for sports and kept getting kicked out of her house. Not only was this unlike her, completely contrary to her character.
Her high school weights coach noticed the change in her behavior. Her coach would pull her aside and ask her how she was doing. Coach would be direct and was willing to have those hard conversations with her about her behavior, wanting to get her the help she needed. Having a trusted adult in her life to work through her struggles and depression helped her survive.
When people struggling with depression have at least one supportive adult in their life, they are less likely to do self-destructive behavior.
A supportive adult is someone who will accept the other person no matter what. Where the person with depression doesn’t feel like they have to leave their identity behind. It’s important that they feel they have someone trustworthy to develop a solid relationship with and talk to about their thoughts and feelings. Having a mentor or counseling type services where they know they won’t be judged are also important.
When we see a loved one hurting, we want to help. We can develop that trusted relationship and provide support. There are things we can do to prevent someone from really struggling. These are called protective factors:
- Attachment and bonding: For those struggling with depression, it is important for them to develop deep relationships with others and to be actively involved in community. Help them be socially involved in school, work, or other groups. Having a strong attachment and bonding to family provides crucial support. My friend would self-isolate on her bad days, but her family would call her out and have a conversation about it. Their presence and accountability helped her remain stable.
- Belief in a moral code: Having a spiritual belief in a higher power to protect them makes a significant difference. It provides a sense of security. Having a belief system also provides a sense of purpose and hope that everything will turn out okay. My friend keeps a journal to keep on a positive track. By not only writing her thoughts and feelings, but also the good things in life that she can be grateful for, helps her from spiraling down.
- Talk about suicide: If you think someone is contemplating suicide, directly ask the question. Some may think that if you talk about suicide to someone who is depressed, then you might give them ideas and push them in that direction. That’s a myth. It is not true. It is best to ask them. If they answer yes, and have a plan of how they would do it, then they are in crisis mode. You need to get help immediately. Reduce access to lethal means of suicide such as keeping alcohol and weapons locked up and out of reach. And keep the conversation on-going. My friend’s mom has weekly check-ins with her. They will grab coffee and talk through how she is doing and feeling.
My friend ended up moving to another state, completely removing herself from that environment, which helped. She is in school right now, working towards becoming a personal trainer. She is not dependent on drugs and alcohol anymore. No longer is the anniversary of his death a day of sadness, anger, and spite. Rather it is a day of remembrance. Now, six years after his death, she is living a healthy life.
By intentionally looking for non-verbal cues, you can identify if someone might be struggling with depression. Then talk with them about it. Be present and a safe place where they can open up and share what’s going on inside of them. Healthy communication is the foundation and support people with depression need to live healthy lives.
By: Sienna Adams and Gail Sanchez - Mental Health Advocates, Education for a Lifetime
Sienna is an active voice in youth suicide prevention. Gail is a certified Health and Wellness Coach. They both speak at schools and community training seminars about mental health.