Blue is the colour of melancholy and depression, and it is also the name of someone I once knew. I met him one Christmas when I was working at a homeless shelter, and by the next Christmas he had killed himself. Blue had lived rough for years, so that alone would have ground him down. But the other people at the shelter told me that he had been struggling with “other issues”, and I gathered a patchwork of information to form the view that this meant he had been struggling with depression.
I wish I had known this during our only Christmas together, when we shared jokes, and played catch with the half-stale bread rolls that no one wanted to eat. But something told me he still would not have opened up. From our brief time together, I could tell that he liked to keep things light, as if a darker conversation would turn his name into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There had been one unguarded moment, though. I think he had suddenly decided to like me when he found me cleaning the toilets at the shelter. He made a joke of it, but you could see that a guard had dropped, and his face softened. He told me about living homeless on the streets of London, and how this had showed him the true nature of mankind: ‘Selfish, heartless, and short-sighted’, he had said. He told me that the busy suits would shrink away from him, as if they believed they could catch his misfortune if they lingered too long. Blue told me that some of the suits sensed the truth that he resembled: That we are all a missed rent or mortgage payment away from the streets, as much as we are all one life incident away from depression.
Despite their expensive suits, and despite their warm taxi rides, Blue told me that they never looked happy. They appeared trapped inside the glass corporate prisons, and trapped in the belief that they were a certain way for life. As they rushed from one corporate glass cage to the next, none of them lifted a head to exchange a glance at each other, too lost were they in their own frantic phone calls and emails.
In our brief time together, Blue taught me as much about the nature of mankind as the nature of his name. I learned about some of the traps that can lead us into depression, and I have set out four below -
B stands for Beliefs, about yourself, others, and the world around you. If you hold onto restrictive, inflexible beliefs about how yourself, others, and the world should be, the easier it is to slip into depression. Life is complicated and uncertain, and we are learning all the time. If you accept this as true, you will need balanced and flexible beliefs to respond to such uncertainty.
L stands for Love (and the lack of it). The less love we experience, whether it is love for ourselves or others, the more vulnerable we are to depression. Yet these days we devalue love in favour of transactions. If we have clicked like, or shared a photo, we delude ourselves into believing that this is enough. And yet true love is a true human connection, an eye-balling moment that involves more than just one of our five senses. We don’t even have to agree with the person, let alone ‘like’ them, but we should savour the special quality of the moment with that person. We should live and breathe it.
U stands for Urgency, and the rush of life today. The more we get caught up in it, and lose a sense of ourselves, the more we are likely to fall into a depression. We barely have a moment to breathe because of the number of multi-layered interactions we are engaged in. We are consumed by instant messages, pictures, sharing, liking, and this is not just confined to our social lives. Our work life is equally multi-layered, so that our every working day becomes threadbare and devoid of substance.
E stands for Escape from the swirl of chaos that is our current state of interaction. With all this second guessing, and loss of tone of voice with emails and text messages, so much is misunderstood or lost entirely. Our minds end up shutting down, because we have gone into sensory overload, and there is a danger that we will end up escaping via unhealthy means, such as a blank-eyed state using alcohol, drugs, or food.
I don’t share Blue’s views of humankind. I don’t think we are basically selfish, heartless, and short-sighted. If I believed that, I don’t think I could continue to practice as a psychotherapist. The very foundation of my work is based on the humanistic ideal of Carl Rogers, who basically said that, given the right conditions, we can grow (self-actualize).
Given the right conditions, we can give ourselves the best chance of avoiding depression. Some depression is unavoidable, and in those cases we may need medication or other treatment. But in other cases, where medication or other treatment is not required, these four conditions are at least a starting point to help us to grow –
B stands for Beliefs need to be balanced and flexible. We should be willing to grow and learn, which means we should be willing to adapt our beliefs if we learn about evidence to the contrary. The more balanced and flexible we view ourselves and the world, the less prone we are to depression.
L stands for Love, and this means an unashamed expression of full-depth love. We should be open and available for human connection, and we should express a willingness for this connection. We are less likely to fall into depression if we can admit to our vulnerabilities, and this includes our inescapably human desire for some sort of connection.
U stands for Unconditional acceptance of humankind is required to avoid depression. This is stealing a little from Carl Rogers, but it basically means that each and every one of us, whether it is Blue, the suits, you or me, we are all human beings, and so we are all of intrinsic value. Depression is often fuelled by a lack of self-esteem, or a conditional sense of worth (for example, I can only feel of worth if I earn a certain amount). Yet we are of intrinsic value regardless of any condition that has to be satisfied.
E stands for Engagement. Instead of escaping, we are acknowledging and remaining aware of the present moment. Mindfulness can help with this, where we remain aware of our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, but we do not try to push them away or hold onto them, because ultimately they will lose their intensity.
I wish Blue had survived to get help for his depression. He left a gap in my Christmases, but he also left a wealth of insight into the nature of depression, and the nature of humankind.
Chris Warren-Dickins LLB MA LPC
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