Chronic Health Conditions, Inflammation And Major Depressive Disorder
Imagine living with asthma (inflammatory disorder) and anaphylaxis (autoimmune disorder) almost from the time you were born. Then imagine growing up and your parents have absolutely no understanding of chronic health conditions and the connection between early life stressful experiences, and the association to Major Depressive Disorder.
The deck was stacked against our son from the day he was born — we just didn’t know it.
As young parents we educated ourselves about our son’s health conditions. We learned about asthma medications and how to avoid specific foods that would cause an anaphylactic reaction. What we didn’t understand was the implication of early life stress and how stress elevates inflammation in the body which is evident in depression.
Activation of inflammatory pathways is a characteristic of several chronic diseases and, in the last decades, convergent findings from several lines of evidence has revealed a robust association between Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and inflammation and immune activation.
A Good Life
Our son was an athlete, entrepreneur and a great cook. He loved music and lyrics that evoked powerful emotions. In spite of his health conditions, he adapted and grew into a young man with much promise.
He was filled with ideas and enthusiasm for the future. We supported and encouraged him and like most parents did the best we could. We thought our son was living a good life.
However, had we understood the physiological changes that increased the risk of developing depression perhaps our story would have turned out differently.
Life changed for our son during first year at university. He became frustrated — unable to concentrate and manage assignments. Relationships suffered. He had difficulty sleeping through the night and lost weight. He began to self medicate to deal with the sadness. He isolated himself feeling that he had become a burden to the people who loved him the most.
Suicide Changes Everything
On a late April day in 2009, our world completely fell apart. We were no longer an ordinary family of five. We had instantly become survivors of suicide loss, #SOSL. For the first time in my life I came close to experiencing the misery and emptiness of depression.
Chronic health conditions, early life stress, possible head injury, self-medicating behaviour and a sense of not belonging were all part of the litany of factors that were involved in our son’s depression. The interior shame that he experienced destroyed his instinct for self-preservation. We were unable to compassionately support our son when he needed us most.
Suicide never leaves behind a simple narrative. Depression and diseases of the brain arise from a complexity of factors that are often misunderstood and stigmatized. The common thread in suicide is an overarching sense of hopelessness and an inability to see past the present moment.
The year that my son took his life there were 3,890 suicides in Canada (Stats Canada). Suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds.
Suicide continues to be the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year olds, globally, with males dying by suicide at higher rates than females. While there has never been greater education and awareness around mental illness and suicide, suicide rates continue to rise.
The Future – Understanding And Reducing Inflammation
Research suggests that many of the behavioural effects of inflammatory dysfunction, such as cognitive function may be the result of long term illnesses. Therapies, including those that target inflammatory pathways such as aspirin, anti inflammatory drugs, acupuncture and exercise may be best suited to prevention and early stage intervention, especially in people with a high risk of developing depression. A 2015 study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reports that the measure of brain inflammation in people who were experiencing clinical depression was increased by 30 per cent. [hyperlink stat]”This finding provides the most compelling evidence to date of brain inflammation during a major depressive episode”, says Dr. Jeffrey Meyer of CAMH’s Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I urge all Canadians to educate themselves about mental health conditions and suicide prevention. To reach out to a friend who has isolated himself. To understand that changes in a person’s behaviour may be symptomatic of depression. To listen without judgement and support with compassion.
On a larger scale we must work together to engage government at all levels to recognize the importance of A National Suicide Prevention Strategy, that is funded and provides access to care and treatment for anyone living with a mental health condition in this country.
A framework that provides youth suicide prevention centers in all regions of Canada, and integrates resources and mental health and suicide prevention education for health care providers, their patients and families.
A strategy that equips hospitals in major cities and regional centers with mental health professionals to treat those experiencing a mental health crisis and provide important follow up care. A National Suicide Prevention Strategy that reflects the needs of all Canadians. With the benefit of research, education and lived experiences illnesses of the brain are becoming less stigmatized. Scientists, health care providers, mental health professionals, organizations and suicide prevention advocates and policy makers need to work collaboratively to create public policy that serves the greater good.
My hope is that as a country we come to a point where youth from Indigenous communities, young people from the suburbs, cities and rural communities understand that although mood disorders are complex they are treatable health conditions.
And like other health issues require support, care and empathy. I look forward to a time when young people impacted by a mood disorder are not defined by their disease and have access to evidence based drugs and alternative therapies.
Our lives have been irrevocably impacted by the loss of our son; a grief that is almost impossible to put into words. Stigma in part prevented our son from seeking support which would have perhaps led him to understand that his depression was the result of many factors.
We cannot change our history but as survivors of suicide loss we can channel our grief into changing lives. We can be part of ending stigma forever and be a force in the evolving suicide prevention conversation. As a country we can move from awareness to action and saving lives.
In my son’s honour I will continue to advocate for youth suicide prevention so other families’ understand what our family could not.