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Expert Dr. Serani on Valentine's Day Depression, Celebrities and Reducing Stigma

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Valentine's Day is upon us. Every year, hate it or love it, the event seems to trigger strong reactions in each of us. But can Valentine's Day cause you to fall into a more serious depression?

I spoke with the nation's leading expert on depression, Deborah Serani, Psy.D, about the significance of holidays and depression. Her new book, Living With Depression details her experience as a psychologist who lives with depression, as well as specializes in treating the chronic illness. Her moving, firsthand account of her own depression is supplemented with practical, evidence-based explanations of the disorder. Dr. Serani is passionate about lowering the stigma of depression through open disclosure, from celebrities to psychologists, who thrive while living with depression.

SK: In your book, you discuss celebrities living with mental illness. Do you think that the success and unlimited means can exacerbate, or make worse, feelings of emptiness and sadness that come with depression?

DS: Research shows that stress of any kind negatively effects chronic illness, so the high-octane life that comes with celebrity can certainly worsen depression. Celebrities are able to have their wishes, whims and wants granted in immediate ways. And in doing so, prime themselves for feeling good. But celebrities who are in the grips of a depression won't truly enjoy the wish granting experiences. This consequence can tip them off that something psychologically significant is impeding their happiness. The truth here is that depression doesn't care if you're successful, famous or ordinary. It's an illness that distorts how you think and feel, making life seem meaningless and hopeless. It's a real medical condition -- not something that occurs from lack of character, weakness or laziness. What celebrities can do, sometimes better than us commoners, is that they have the means to help address mental illness stigma. And when high-profile individuals disclose their struggles with depression, they help take the shame out of living with this chronic illness.

SK: You've talked about the "anniversary effect." With Valentine's Day right around the corner, do you feel that big holidays such as this can also trigger sadness, irritability and depression?

DS: I often say that knowing your life story helps you to live in the present and plan for the future. Knowing your own personal narrative includes identifying stressful dates on the calendar. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, even seasonal changes can worsen depression. It's also important to know that anniversary reactions generally occur weeks before the identified date, and can last for weeks thereafter. So, it's just not the date in question that can throw you. Sometimes, people I work with aren't aware of why they're feeling irritable, sad or emotionally fatigued. When we look at the calendar, we spot the triggering date, and soon the depressive symptoms make sense. Every year, I take to my own calendar. I circle the dates that are my personal trigger events in red marker. I do this so I can see them ahead of time, and prepare myself with resilient building skills to get through them all.

SK: What are your tips for handling "broken heart syndrome," especially around Valentine's Day?
DS: In a word, self-care. Dealing with the sadness from a breakup or a lost love can be extremely harrowing any day -- but when a celebratory date like Valentine's Day rolls around, it makes the grieving experience even worse. Make sure to take care of yourself by feeding your senses with comforting experiences. Another good tip is to not hold your sad feelings in. Find some way to express them. A broken heart leaves many people feeling stunned and stuck. Move. Get out of bed. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Feel the sun on your face. Remember to eat well and keep a routine sleep schedule. If you require medication to help you with sleeping, modulating your moods or other health issues, don't feel ashamed. You're going through a significantly stressful time. And one last thing, don't let anyone put a time limit on your broken heart.

SK: Why do you think weddings sometimes bring out feelings of depression, grief and sadness?

DS: It's not unusual to measure the trajectory of your own life when witnessing another's milestone event. So, weddings can elicit a lot of different internal experiences. For those who may not be married, it can bring out feelings of insecurity: Will I ever marry? For those who are married, witnessing nuptials may cause one to reflect on their own marital happiness: I'm not happy in my marriage anymore. Sometimes it has to do with the passage of time and how fleeting life is, causing some to fear their own mortality: Seems like yesterday that I just got married. I'm married 25 years, where'd the time go? It's helpful to know that milestone events can be triggers for anyone, even more so for someone living with depression. And knowing this can help you be prepared for strong emotional reactions.

SK: What's the feedback you've gotten from those who have read your book?

DS: Most of the time, readers tell me that Living with Depression was a meaningful and powerful read. When I learn from a person that they were ashamed to have depression, but no longer feel that way after reading my book, that makes my heart soar. I love how sharing one's narrative helps others feel less alone.

SK: Why do you think so many people resist getting treatment for depression?

DS: In our society, mental illness is still largely stigmatized. Despite research showing that depression is a real illness, many think a depressed person has a weak character, is lazy or just not trying hard enough to shake things off. As a result, people who have depression keep their suffering cloistered away from others, sometimes even themselves.

SK: What's the biggest myth that you regularly hear about depression that you'd like to debunk?

DS: So often I hear "I don't want to take medication because it's gonna change who I am." To which I say, "No, that's just not true." Medication alters your depressive symptoms. It doesn't alter your personality. Simply said, medication doesn't change who you are. It may, however, enhance your life. And I know this personally as well as professionally, because I take antidepressant medication.

Rather than viewing depression with shame, it's helpful to see depression as a complex set of interactions -- of thoughts, emotions, biology, and external events-- that can trigger a major depressive episode. No one is immune from the disease, not psychologists, not celebrities. I am heartened to hear Dr. Serani's hopeful and insightful view on living with depression, and I commend all those who have joined her in sharing their journey of strength and success while living with depression.

For more by Dr. Shannon Kellogg, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.

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