Preventing Depression

I love it when people who actually know what they’re talking about confirm something I’ve believed for ages.

In this case, a study at the Feinberg School of Medicine (that’s Northwestern’s med school) showed that one out of every four or five college students who come to their school’s health center may be suffering from depression. The study also recommended that colleges should start screening students for depression. This way, they might even be able to pinpoint students with minor depression and help them get treatment before their depression worsens.

Ever since I’ve started seriously reading about psychology and depression, I’ve felt that we should start taking a preventative approach to it–not just in colleges, but everywhere. Depression tends to worsen with time, and even when it does remit on its own, it usually comes back later, with more intensity. Furthermore, distorted thinking patterns seem to precede the development of a full-blown depressive episode, so why not address those earlier rather than later?

For instance, parents take their kids to the doctor to make sure that they’re growing at a normal rate and developing the cognitive abilities they’re supposed to develop–why not also check to make sure that kids aren’t developing negative and maladaptive thinking patterns that could increase their risk for becoming depressed later?

You might think that kids are too young to show definitive patterns, but I think that’s false. My own little brother, who’s eight years old, constantly complains that he’s fat and needs to exercise, despite being underweight for his age. He also says that everyone at school hates him (they don’t) and that his school is awful and should be burned to the ground (and various other sentiments that have gotten him sent to the principal’s office before). Perhaps most importantly, he also has a pervasive family history of depression.

The unfortunate truth is that society views mental illnesses as fundamentally different from physical illnesses. One is a straightforward matter–you go to a doctor for checkups, and if something is wrong, you receive treatment. The other is for some reason shrouded in mystery, and people generally don’t go seek help for it until they’re already barely functioning.

As recent scientific developments are beginning to show, however, it may be that all mental illnesses actually have a physical basis. More and more psychologists and psychiatrists (notably, Peter D. Kramer of Listening to Prozac fame) are starting to take this view. If they’re right, it follows that we should try to take a preventative approach in treating mental illness, not a palliative one.

However, many people still have negative attitudes about the idea of psychological screening. One of the students quoted in the article linked to above said that these screenings are a bad idea because someone could just “be having a bad day” and–oh, the horrors–get recommended for counseling. First of all, however, counseling isn’t exactly the same as taking antibiotics or getting a spinal tab. Second, that just means that we need to develop better depression screening tools, not that we shouldn’t screen for it at all.

In college especially, conditions like depression can take a turn for the worse rather quickly, as evidenced by the several suicides we’ve had on campus while I’ve been a student here. Every time a tragedy like that occurs, friends and family are often quoted as saying that they “never saw it coming.” Maybe a professional psychologist would’ve.

Northwestern Doesn't Care About its Students

Evanston, Illinois, which is where I go to school, has a stupid housing ordinance that states that no more than three unrelated people may live together in a house or apartment. It’s intended to ensure proper upkeep because, apparently, people who aren’t related to each other don’t care about the state of their housing, whereas people who are related do. (???)

Anyway, up until now, Evanston has not been enforcing the rule. But now it’s going to. Hundreds of Northwestern students will be evicted this summer because they live in houses or apartments with more than three unrelated people.

And today, the Daily Northwestern reports that the Northwestern administration will not attempt to lobby Evanston’s city government regarding this issue despite the fact that it directly affects so many students.

The Assistant Dean of Students’ response? Students should move farther away from campus.

Let me give you some background on Evanston. Although it’s obviously safer than some Chicago neighborhoods, there were eight homicides in Evanston in 2010 compared to just one in 2009–something that the University and the city police don’t seem to be too concerned about. Every couple of weeks, the entire University community receives an email alert regarding a crime that has just been committed on or near campus–muggings, assaults, break-ins, you name it. Last year, a man attempted to assault a woman in one of our academic buildings.

And with all this, the University administration thinks students should move even farther away from campus, risk even longer walks home in the dark, and live even further apart from other students–all to avoid getting off of its ass and lobbying against an outdated and useless rule.

Landlords, too, will be hurt by the enforcement of this law. The first Daily article I linked to mentions the fact that many of these houses and apartments really aren’t of the quality that families moving to a supposedly wealthy place like Evanston would be looking for. Many of the houses for rent near campus used to be for sale–until their owners realized that nobody’s going to buy them. Without students to fill these houses and apartments, many of them would probably be left empty.

Furthermore, Evanston officials have stated that the reason they’re starting to enforce the ordinance is to crack down on student parties. First of all, that won’t work–the number of people living in an apartment doesn’t determine whether or not those students have a party; that’s preposterous. In fact, if people have to live with fewer roommates, they may be more likely to throw parties so that more people come over.

Also, as the Daily article mentions, having students live in concentrated areas makes it easier for the police to patrol those areas. If students start living miles away from campus and having parties there, not only will that piss off even more Evanston residents who otherwise wouldn’t have had to deal with it, but it will also make it harder for the police to stop the parties.

But, most importantly–at least, to me–the hope of stopping college students from partying (something that’s never going to happen anyway) is not worth jeopardizing their safety. Evanston isn’t a small town in Ohio. It’s a city that’s located close to a major metropolitan area. It has very real crime issues. I am shocked that for how much money I’m paying to go here, the Northwestern administration won’t stick up for its students and battle this ridiculous ordinance. Instead, it’s asking us to move farther away from campus, dilute the sense of community that is already so fragile at this school, and expose ourselves to a greater risk of becoming the victims of crime.

I should’ve invested my $200,000 wiser.

[Update] Several of my friends have pointed out that this ordinance was probably originally enacted in order to prevent minorities (who ostensibly have lower incomes and would benefit from being able to share houses or apartments with other people) from moving into Evanston. I’m still looking for a credible source confirming this, but if it’s true–and it probably is–then that’s just one more reason to repeal the law. If the city of Evanston is using a racist law to attempt to control student partying, that is ridiculous. Not to mention that the law probably does disproportionately affect minorities.

Dressing for Depression

This Jezebel post caught my eye the other day. It’s called “Dressing for Depression” and basically suggests ways to put an outfit together when you’re depressed. As you might know, one of the symptoms of depression is that it becomes really, really hard–sometimes practically impossible–to do simple everyday things, such as getting dressed. This post aimed to make it a bit easier while, unfortunately, utilizing ridiculously flippant language to discuss a serious disorder.

When I first read it, I didn’t really know what to think. I try not to get offended at things before I give them some serious thought, so I did. And although I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse the author of ableism (like some commenters did), I think she could’ve been a lot more sensitive with her writing.

First of all, the title. “Dressing for Depression.” Depression is not a social event, or any kind of event at all. It’s a pervasive state of despair, fatigue, and self-loathing. To a person who actually has depression (and not merely the blues), “dressing for depression” means dressing for everyday life.

[Update: Apparently, Jezebel changed the post's name to "Dressing When You're Depressed."]

Second, the way the post begins is this: “Maybe it’s SAD. Maybe it’s clinical. Maybe you’re in a breakup. Or maybe you just have the blues. Whatever the reason, it’s better to wear clothes (trust me).” Saying it this way basically equates SAD, clinical depression, breakups, and the blues. These things are not equal. If the author stuck to breakups and the blues, the rest of the post would be pretty appropriate, but SAD and clinical depression are disorders, not mood states, and as such, they’re not considered part of a healthy, normal life. Breakups and the blues, on the other hand, are a routine part of life for most people and can be overcome without medical treatment.

Later on, the author writes: “Basically, there are two real options: wallowing and rallying.” Actually, if you’re actually clinically depressed, there are two options: wallowing and having someone force you to see a psychiatrist. Suggesting that people with depression can “rally” and “pick themselves up” and “put on a good face” and all that other garbage is so ridiculously belittling and offensive. Depression isn’t simply a disorder that makes you put yourself down; it’s also disorder that prevents you from picking yourself up.

For those who apparently can magically rally themselves despite having a serious illness, the author has this advice: “Go crazy. Think garter belts, and false lashes, or perfume. Yeah, it sounds weird, but sometimes desperate measures are called for! Fake it til you make it — and, as we all know from “The King and I,” you may fool yourself while you’re at it.” Fake it til you make it is what people tell depressives when they find themselves too inconvenienced by the presence of someone with a mental disorder.

Even without the cutesy and belittling language, the post is rather useless. Good clothes, contrary to the author’s suggestion, don’t help most depressives feel better. I would know; I have a closet full of them, and I was depressed for years.

One commenter said it well: “You know how I dressed for depression? In a hospital gown. Way to trivialize a serious illness.”

No More Lonely Nights

[This was originally a Facebook note that I posted right before New Year's Eve. It got a lot of positive attention so I figured I'd repost it.]

[TMI Warning]

Normally at this time of year, I like to write a long note about what I’ve accomplished during the past year, what it all means, what my New Year’s resolutions are, how my love life is progressing, all that type of stuff. New Year’s Eve is an important night for me for many reasons, most of all because it just gives me a great opportunity to reflect on how my life is going.

Ordinarily I make a list. A big long list. Everything will be on there–breakups, revelations, other transitions of various sorts. A lot of stuff has happened to me this year. A lot of it was important to me.

But I’m not going to make a list this year, because this year, there’s really only one thing that I want to write about. It’s the biggest, most important thing. This year, I recovered from depression.

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Why I Chose Humanistic Judaism

[This is cross-posted from the Interfaith at Northwestern blog, which I was asked to contribute a post for. :)]

When I was a kid, I was absolutely convinced that God exists. I prayed all the time, in fact. Sometimes it was for the silly sorts of stuff that kids worry about; sometimes it was for things like having my parents come home safe and sound from a trip.

My parents come from the former Soviet Union, where religious expression of any kind was strongly discouraged. As a result, they were never religious or observant at all, so they were pretty surprised that I was. I encouraged them to light Shabbat candles and take me to the synagogue on Friday nights, and they bought me a children’s Bible and an encyclopedia about Judaism.

As a teenager, I began questioning things much more. I loved science and therefore had a lot of trouble taking the Bible at its word, but I was still open to the idea of being Jewish in a traditional way. The summer after my junior year of high school, however, everything changed.

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