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October 7, 2009 > Counseling Corner: Hey, Why so Down?

Counseling Corner: Hey, Why so Down?

By Thomas Gill, Ph.D.

Statistically speaking, you should be happy. Well, if not happy, at least satisfied. After all, when asked, most people at most times in most places rate their life satisfaction as good or better (better than good, wow!). This is especially true in Denmark, home of literature's most famous and unhappy prince. Despite a high taxes and a socialist infrastructure (healthcare and university are free, can you imagine!), they have an average reported happiness and life-satisfaction score of 8.2 out of 10. Americans come in around 17th on this latest survey, with a score of 7.4. Still, a score of 7.4 out of 10 isn't too shabby, and I suppose you could say the average Yank is three-quarters content.

But can our self-reports be believed? Well, science and technology have allowed us to move beyond mere self-report. It turns out that researchers have devised a clever way to get inside peoples' heads and assess their happiness - they hook them up to sensors and watch their brain-waves. If there is more activity on the left side of brain, the prefrontal cortex to be precise, then the right, that indicates a sunnier disposition. The more prefrontal activity on the left as compared to the right, the happier a person is. And, it turns out there are a group of people who blow away all others in this left predominance measure: seasoned meditators, namely Buddhist monks. So sitting around trying to think about nothing seems to do wonders for your general experience of life. Who'd have thought?

October 8th is National Depression Screening Day. Select schools, hospitals, and agencies around the country participate in giving free depression screenings and information. Depression appears to be on the rise affecting between 15-20 million American adults in a given year. Depression is also the leading cause of disability for those between the ages 15-44 and can be a life and death matter. Most suicides are committed by people suffering from a clinically significant, or Major Depression. Those suffering from depression who do not take their lives may still bear profound mental anguish that can significantly impair relationships, daily activities, and work performance. The good news is that Major Depression can be treated very effectively, provided it is correctly identified.

So what are you options if you suffer from depression? Perhaps the most common current treatment for Depression Disorder is the use of anti-depressant medication. This is probably not unrelated to the fact that physicians are often the first professionals to become aware that a person is suffering from clinically significant depression. Physicians are able to prescribe anti-depressants, and will often renew that prescription after a brief telephone consult. This seems a relatively minimalistic approach, but apparently works well for some (approximately 40% to 60%), even if controversial in some circles (Google "effectiveness of anti-depressants"). There are side-effects associated with anti-depressants, which may include reduced sex-drive, an increase in thoughts of suicide, and withdrawal symptoms.

What about talk therapy? There are many varieties, but most do try to provide the depressed person with hope and encourage thinking, behaving, and relating that aim at not only overcoming the depression, but preventing its reoccurrence. While more intensive and expensive than popping a pill, talk therapy provides a structure and monitoring that may be extremely valuable to those who need or can benefit from increased attention, support, and encouragement.

One of the most researched and popular talk therapies is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A pioneer in the field, Martin Seligman, discovered what he called a cognitive triad in depression. The triad is concerned with thoughts of self, ongoing life circumstances, and attitude towards the future. When a person is depressed, thoughts about those areas tend to become very negative. In fact, hopelessness about the future may be the most important of the three, the greatest predictor of whether a person will attempt suicide. The CBT therapist does not try to instill 'positive thinking' but instead helps to uncover characteristic, and generally fleeting, negative thoughts. These can be systematically tested against logic, evidence, and experience and gradually modified toward more realistic and empowering thoughts and beliefs. Additionally the CBT therapist may help a depressed person establish a routine that includes pleasant events and interactions, and behaviors that enhance mood, mastery, and self-esteem.

While there are things you can do for yourself that will enhance happiness and lower the risk of depression (e.g., meditation, exercise, developing your social support system), there is also a very real risk involved in suffering from a persistently depressed mood and not seeking help. Treatment for depression is generally quite effective. If you, or someone you care about, is suffering from what might be depression, I urge you to consult a professional (psychologist, psychiatrist, physician, or other mental health practitioner), or to seek out a center that provides screening for depression. It could be a life or death decision. At the very least, it is likely to make you happier.




Thomas Gill is a licensed psychologist in Morgan Hill. He is a parent of a child with autism, and is dedicated to providing professional assistance to other parents in finding resources, support, and hope in their efforts to maximize the opportunities for their children. He can be reached at (408) 843-7997, and is available for paid phone consultation, support, and assistance.

Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find happiness in their careers, lives, and relationships. She can be reached at (510) 744-1781. Her website is www.annechanconsulting.com

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