That’s what friends are for

Living in a dense city apparently is bad for our health, according to news reports (“Mental health experts say city dwellers more prone to stress-related disorders“, Channel News Asia, 24 March 2014). It could be our competitive work ethic. It could be that our corporate culture lacks emphasis on work-life balance.

Young Man with His Hand on His Forehead

Whatever the reason, we typically experience an elevated amount of stress. Even though some report that we’re happy (read this report), there are indications that many aren’t happy at work (read this Straits Times report and this Today article).

And we should know the negative impact stress has on our mental and physical health. Because Mediacorp’s Channel 5 programme, Body and Soul, channelled all its energies into explaining mental health in its 8th episode (“Behind the curtain of depression” on 1st April 2014 9pm).

Despite this education campaign about mental health, the public’s awareness and understanding about depression will likely remain poor. And relatively few who need support for mental health problems seek professional help (here’s why). Those are the same reasons why there is a need to document Singaporeans’ understanding of mental health and the factors which motivate them to seek professional help (see these Today published on 19th and 20th March 2014).

But awareness campaigns work best through word of mouth. Friends these days are useful for providing entertainment through their lifehacks and buzzfeed posts, and for creating social envy among friends through the multitude of food pictures they post on their facebook. But they sometimes also provide emotional support to friends in need.

So on this World Suicide Prevention Day, it’s important that friends have the facts:

What Is Depression?

Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness.

Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment. But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better with treatment. Medications, psychotherapies, and other methods can effectively treat people with depression.

What are the signs and symptoms of depression?

People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

I started missing days from work, and a friend noticed that something wasn’t right. She talked to me about the time she had been really depressed and had gotten help from her doctor.

How can I help a loved one who is depressed?

If you know someone who is depressed, it affects you too. The most important thing you can do is help your friend or relative get a diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make an appointment and go with him or her to see the doctor. Encourage your loved one to stay in treatment, or to seek different treatment if no improvement occurs after 6 to 8 weeks.

To help your friend or relative

  • Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
  • Talk to him or her, and listen carefully.
  • Never dismiss feelings, but point out realities and offer hope.
  • Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to your loved one’s therapist or doctor.
  • Invite your loved one out for walks, outings and other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don’t push him or her to take on too much too soon.
  • Provide assistance in getting to the doctor’s appointments.
  • Remind your loved one that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.

Taken from the US NIMH Depression publication; the PDF is available here.

And friends don’t keep good information to themselves. They will want to spread the word.

Do something about it

Do something about it

The fifth day of Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year) was also World Cancer Day.

It seems a good time to take stock of our health. Especially now that we’ve been let loose from the dominion of uncontrolled pineapple tart scoffing and have been set free from unrestricted access to yu sheng, under the auspices of generating bounteousness and plenitude with the humble shredded carrot, cucumber, radish, yam, pomelo, plum sauce and ginger.

A recent article in the Guardian reported cancer rates for women in the UK to be linked to a lack of exercise. And although local cancer rates differ from those in other countries, the most frequent cancers in the local population – colorectal and breast for men and women respectively (refer to this report for facts and figures) – are associated with low intake of fruits and vegetables and sedentary low-exercise lifestyles (see this fact sheet on colorectal cancer and this fact sheet on breast cancer from the National Registry of Diseases Singapore).

Even for cancers which are less frequently occurring, such as non-small cell lung cancer (details in a Mind Your Body article, 4 Nov 2010), targeted treatments are improving rates of recovery as well as remission. Even advanced lung cancer patients are living longer locally because of targeted treatments (CNA, 30 Nov 2013). Immune therapies which shrink the tumour are also being made available thanks to the advancement of research in this area. And new breakthroughs happen on a regular basis: “Sticky balls may stop cancer spreading” (BBC News, 9 Jan 2014).

Cancer research receives a colossal amount of funding worldwide (see this blog entry about cancer funding from the NY Times), but it’s not really going anywhere unless we do something about the things that we do know. And we know that exercise and fruit-vegetables have something to do with the most common cancers.

Dealing with the emotions of having a diagnosis and receiving treatment, as well as caring and supporting a family member or friend who is coping with an illness, are also sources of stress. It’s important to take steps which can help one adjust to the illness: the National Cancer Centre of Singapore (NCCS) provides a comprehensive approach; practical tips are at the US National Cancer Institute and Mayo Clinic, while advice on how to help a friend can be found here at the APA website and this NIH website.

It’s a good time to start a new habit. More so if you made 1 Jan 2014 resolution to exercise more and eat more fruits and vegetables. Here’s a chance to reboot that resolution and make it last the whole horse year.