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Thursday, 11 December 2008

When a depression is depressing

Dhany Osman looks at how to stay resilient in these recessionary times.

AS I worked on my depression story out in Mind Your Body today, it came to my attention that the doctors I spoke to were reporting only small rises in number of patients who were anxious or depressed by the economic downturn.

It seemed strange to me, what with all the financial doom and gloom being reported in the newpapers world-wide.

I think Dr Chua Hong Choon, vice chairman of the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) medical board, summed it up best when he said: "Singaporeans are generally quite resilient."

He added that during the last recession, in the late 1990s, Singapore saw only a small rise in suicide cases compared to other Asian countries like Korea and Thailand. While I can't comment on what attitudes are like overseas, I do believe in the truth to Dr Chua's comment on the Singaporean's mental fortitude, especially when it comes to dealing with economic hardship.

By and large, I think Singaporeans have very strong survival instincts and will do what it takes to survive the financial crisis. As much as the younger generation may be criticised for taking things for granted, a lot of people I know have already steeled themselves for tough times and seem to have made ample preparations.

Take for instance a long-time friend of mine, who started work this year with a small start-up internet advertising company. He also got married recently and purchased his first home. With bills to pay and shaky business prospects ahead, I was sure he would be stressed by the recent global economic developments.

Instead, he seemed to see is as an exciting challenge to work in such a climate. "Bigger companies are fat and may need to slim down, mine is lean and mean," he said.

This, I believe, is the kind of resilience that Dr Chua was talking about; the problem-solving kind of pragmatism that one can apply to get out of any situation.

In my life, I've also learned a lot about dealing with depression from those around me that have fought it.

A close relative of mine once sat me down years ago and explained to me how she dealt with post-natal depression. Her detailed account of having to drag herself out of bed each morning, and go through the day with a leaden heart - despite the recent birth of her second child - was a truly sobering experience.

Up to that point, I had the tendency to use the word 'depression' rather frivolously, referring to homework and examinations as 'depressing' while idolising the 'depressing' music of my favourite bands at the time. (They're just melancholic or emotional, really.) These days, I'm more careful about how I use the term.

While this relative of mine did seek counselling, which helped to a certain extent, she also said that it was more a matter of resolutely bearing with the veil of sadness drawn over her, until it lifted on its own around a year later.

This just made me wonder if depression is a trial by fire which one emerges from stronger after overcoming the test.

I've seen friends emerge from severely traumatising periods in their lives as more determined and strong-willed people. But I've also lost friends to depression and know that it's no game, nor is it a condition to be treated flippantly.

As the current recession progresses, depression stemming from monetary or job anxieties may be the 'trial-by-fire' faced by some of us. While there may be no guaranteed solutions to fixing the recessionary blues, the act of trying to solve one's problems can in itself provide some relief. Inactivity, will only lead to a downward spiral of negative thinking.

To sum up what the expertssay: Take stock of your life during this time if you feel you're getting down. Prioritise what's important in your life (whether it's your family, your career or your home), and discard the unneccessary worries. Set modest goals, like managing to save a certain amount of money within a period, for yourself and see if you don't feel better for achieving them.

Solidarity and communication, too, are vital during hard times and this applies to family, friends and colleagues. Be each other's listening ear and look out for those in emotional distress.

A local bank staff member told me how morale at his workplace was at an all-time low following the global financial crash. He said that in lieu of actions taken by his employers (to provide emotional support), his colleagues had taken turns to play counsellor to one another to keep their spirits up at work.

"It helps us get by," he said.

As comrades hunker down together this recession, there is a lesson to be learn in the above example. Things may get rough in the months - or even years - to come, but by doing what it takes, we may all survive this ordeal together.

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