Dr. Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, was once asked following a lecture on mental health: “What would you advise a person to do, if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?”
Most people thought he would say: “Consult a psychiatrist.”
But he didn’t. He surprised everyone when he replied: “Leave your house, find someone in need, and do something to help that person.”
I know this is going to upset folks. When I posted it on my Facebook page, the reviews weren’t so nice. One woman said that hearing things like this makes her feel worse because it is as though Menninger is saying that she’s depressed because she’s self-absorbed.
Another person was angry at me because he thought that spreading this kind of horse poop online deepens and thickens the stigma that we have to work so hard against. I get that.
For six years I experienced suicidal thoughts. In that time, I helped many people stuck in the Black Hole of Bile (depression) and volunteered my time to various programs. But I still wanted to die. I would try my best to lift someone up, and then return home to Google “Easiest ways to get cancer.”
However, this perspective — transcending your pain in loving acts of service — is also full of hope, if you can look at it that way.
According to a 2002 study in Pain Management Nursing, nurses suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain. “Despite encountering challenges, the rewards of this altruistic endeavor outweighed any frustrations experienced by volunteers with chronic pain,” says the abstract.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California and the author of The How of Happiness, has studied this topic for years. She and one of her graduate students received a grant from the Science of Generosity competition at the University of Notre Dame to find out if this theory is really true. According to her research, it is. People who have a tendency toward depression, she asserts, can often help themselves by helping others.
I just watched the movie “Patch Adams”, so the dialogue is fresh in my mind between Patch (Robin Williams) and Carin (Monica Potter), a fellow student with whom Patch has fallen in love, as they walk along the beautiful campus where they attend medical school. She has just found out he was in a mental hospital in the past.
Patch: The mental ward was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Corin: What did the doctors do to help you?
Patch: The doctors didn’t help me. The patients helped me. They helped me realize that by helping them I could forget about my own problems. And I did. I really helped some of them. It was an incredible feeling, Carin. There was one patient named Rudy. I helped him be able to pee. But for the first time in my life, I forgot about my own problems.
Earlier in the movie, inside the psych ward, Patch pretends to see the squirrels that his roommate Rudy is so afraid of — the reason he won’t walk the five feet across their room to the bathroom. Taking out pretend rifles, the two guys shoot at the squirrels until they laugh themselves silly. That moment in the real Patch Adam’s life (the movie is based on a true story) is what inspired him to become a doctor.
I believe in the healing power of helping people because I have experienced it this last past year. I was just emerging from my last depressive episode, in May of 2014, when I decided I was going to create an online community for people with chronic depression. Since then, I have felt a significant decline in depressive symptoms — crying, insomnia, irritability, death thoughts, fatigue, loss of appetite. Trying to help others cope with their conditions has empowered me to manage my own.
It’s like the story about the guy who stood at the edge of a cliff, ready to jump… until someone else arrived at the same cliff who also wanted to jump. The first guy immediately tries to talk the second guy out of jumping, and in his mission, he forgets all about jumping himself.
Join the conversation on Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.