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Solomon reflects on depression

In order to beat depression, individuals must first recognize that they suffer from it, said Andrew Solomon, the keynote speaker at the University's Depression on College Campuses Conference.

Solomon, the author of "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression" and a fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University, spoke to an audience of faculty, students and community members about the need to recognize depression among student populations. An intense stigma and fear that others won't understand their symptoms, he said, are the greatest obstacles to alleviating this illness.
Author Andrew Solomon signs a copy of his book, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” March 6 during the University’s first national conference on depressive illness. In the book, Solomon writes: “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.” His message to conference participants was one of hope for those living with the illness. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Drawing on his own battle with depression, as well as his work with college students, Solomon noted that adolescents often are afraid to admit to themselves and others that they suffer from a mental illness. At a recent conference at Yale, Solomon asked a group of students how many of them suffered from depression. After a few giggles, he said, only one student raised his hand, but after several minutes, nearly two-thirds of them had done so. He said it was disheartening to see a group of highly-motivated, academically successful students react in this way.

"At a preeminent university with the most popular and most accomplished students, it was startling to see how many of them suffered from depression," Solomon said. "A splendid openness about depression is just beginning on college campuses, but we have a long way to go—there is still a stigma attached to it."

Another roadblock to treating depression, he said, is a widespread misunderstanding of what the disease entails. He noted that medical professionals often are quick to prescribe drugs such as Valium, which alleviate the symptoms of depression but don't get to the root of the problem. This root, Solomon said, is not a feeling of sadness, but rather a feeling of helplessness and the lack of ability to grapple with everyday concerns.

"I would say that the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality," he said. "The experience of depression is not so much about feeling incredibly sad, but feeling incredibly devitalized, and not having any of the essential energy that constitutes being alive or any of the feelings that make up our day-to-day experience."

Solomon's attitudes towards depression stem from his own experience: namely, the traumatic death of his mother. Following her death, he said, he suffered from a "creeping numbness" that made him care nothing about what was happening to and around him. After the numbness, he says, he began to view everyday tasks as incredibly overwhelming. The act of preparing a meal, he said, became extraordinarily difficult.

"The idea that in order to eat, one has to get the food out of the fridge and put it on a plate, and cut it up and lift it to one's mouth and chew it and swallow it—it seemed so difficult to me," Solomon said. "I wondered how someone else was able to get through it."

The key to relieving his depressive symptoms, he said, was seeking professional help and learning how to reduce the fear associated with everyday responsibilities. He believes the individuals best equipped to deal with depression are able to recognize their illness and coexist with it. The most important thing, he said, is to understand that depression is a disease, but one that can be treated.

"The people who try to find a peaceful relationship with their depression are the ones who are most able to keep going and move forward," Solomon said. "If you suffer from depression, you need the ability to respond to it and make sense out of it."

Since winning his battle with depression, Solomon has found that he has more joy in everyday life and is more humane in his interactions with others. He says that his perspective on the world has completely changed for the better.

"When people ask me, 'If you could do it all over again, would you choose to be depressed?' and I say, 'Of course not, but I am confident that I couldn't be who I am today without it.'"

Solomon was one of dozens of speakers at the conference, which is both in its inaugural year and the first of its kind in the nation. Focusing on the symptoms and treatment of depression, the event was designed to raise awareness of mental health issues and educate the community about depression. Other guests at the two-day conference were author and mental health advocate Kathy Cronkite, and Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, author of "Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman's Journey Though Depression."

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