If any part of your body is broken (e.g. your leg or your lung), you are likely to be showered with love, support and understanding by family and friends. But if the issue is with the three-pound mass hidden inside your skull, people tend to run the opposite direction. Stigma and discrimination are the two biggest obstacles to productive public dialogue about mental health. Do you know that every 30 seconds someone in the world somewhere takes his own life as a result of depression?

I’ve been listening to the stories of the people who have endured severe depression and yet are courageous enough to come out and share their struggles with the rest of the world. Andrew Solomon, a writer on politics, culture and psychology, says that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality. When he plunged into depression a year after he suffered from a series of losses, he lost interest in doing the daily mundane things such as talking to friends, taking a shower, eating lunch or getting out the door. He began to do less and think less until one day Solomon woke up finding himself frozen and unable to move for hours. He thought he was going to die. That was when he realized he needed help and started seeking treatment.

Writer, comic and mental health activist Kevin Breel described his depression as being marinated in too much sadness when everything was going well, along with the acute anxiety and fear that people might see who he really was through the perfect image of a popular kid, fun at parties, English and drama awards, always on the honor roll, captain of the Lambrick Park basketball team when it was ranked No. 1 in the province. One day, with a bottle of sleeping bills on his bed and a notepad in his hand, Breel was contemplating taking his own life. Fortunately he didn’t. Like Breel, Solomon confessed that what prevented one from taking his own life was the pain it could inflict on the people who loved him.

An emotionally healthy person may say, “What’s the big deal about getting out of bed and do the everyday things everybody else does? You just have to force yourself and stop whining!” To that, Solomon’s response was, “You know it’s ridiculous. But somehow you are in its grip and just can’t find any way around it.”

Humans are adaptive to different kinds of mood: joy, happiness, worry, sadness and fear. We all experience negative emotions from time to time, but most of us are able to go about our lives not too distracted by fear and anxiety. But the adaptive system is broken for the mentally ill. Depression is a genetic vulnerability in triggering circumstances. While depressive people believe they are seeing the absolute truth, their perceptions towards themselves and the world they live in are delusional. They simply can’t snap out of it without medical or psychological interventions. Is depression a chemical or philosophical problem? We don’t know enough in either field to pinpoint the root cause, and for now both play a part in treating it.

Depression is broadly perceived to be modern western middle-class illness. Somehow, if you live in poverty, your dark mood is commensurate with your miserable life. But if you have a perfectly good life and yet feel terrible all the time, then something must be wrong. In China, with the economic boom in the past twenty years, mental health has become a problem. Friends told me that psychologists were now in high demand and it was fairly easy to get a practicing license (taking classes for a few weeks and passing an exam). People would pre-pay a full year ahead to talk to a reputable shrink regularly.

After interviewing dozens of depressive individuals, Solomon has found the mechanism of resilience for dealing with depression. Those who deny their experiences and vow to move on without ever looking back are enslaved by what they have. On the other hand, people who can accept the fact that they have this condition tend to have more rewarding lives between their depressive episodes and they also tolerate relapses better. Medication, psychotherapy and alternative treatments don’t make depressed people happy, but enable them to live vital and fulfilled lives.

We are having a brutal winter here in Chicago. Today the temperature is -15 degree Fahrenheit, and with the wind, it feels like -40. The continuous snowstorms and freeze only make me yearn for spring much more than someone who lives in California. The striking common point both Solomon and Breel shared was that the relapse of depression might be hellish, but it caused them to cleave to the reasons of life more and experience the joyful moments more intensely.

Silence isn’t going to cure depression. One in every four people experiences mental health issues, and so you must know someone in your family or inner circle who is struggling with this awful condition. Reach out to them and embrace them with love, support and understanding. Maybe along the way you’ll save a precious life.

*Image Credit: