Weakness and other Debunked Theories for Depression! 

Hi, John Panigas here, and welcome to my blog. This blog is devoted to starting a conversation(s) about leadership, anxiety, depression, and mental wellness. It is dedicated to leaders that are suffering, who have sought help, and are not improving; it is for those leaders struggling with depressive feelings and who don’t know what to do about it. And finally, for those who are mentally healthy and want to increase their understanding to help family, friends, and team members navigate mental illnesses and achieve a sense of mental wellness. If you prefer an audio version, please refer to the podcast section of the website.

Weakness and other Debunked Theories for Depression! 

Have you ever woken up with feelings of hopelessness, desperation, and fear? Then, there it is, the accompanying physical pain? In my case, searing pain in my gut greeted me every day. I call it the black pile. It sounds somewhat dramatic, doesn’t it? These feelings and the resulting physical manifestations are experienced in some form by over 30% of leaders daily. This would be considered an epidemic with any other physical disease or ailment. Why is there an unwillingness to be open and transparent about depression? Likely, because of the stigma of weakness attributed to depression. As leaders, we are expected to be confident, strong, and resilient. Many believe admitting to the struggle of depression will compromise their leadership.

As far back as the late ‘1800s, those of weak will were mocked and ostracized and, in the extreme, committed to sanitoriums. Soldiers and support personnel who returned from war experienced PTSD, which was left unresolved. These folks, without help, succumbed to this disease. They were characterized as weak, not because of the wartime environment they were exposed to, but because of a perceived lack of character and fatigue brought on by their experiences. This stigma has stuck for centuries.

I have been exposed to verbal and emotional abuse in my life, both directed at other family members and me. This was especially prevalent and, at its most extreme, for over thirty (30) years leading our fast-growing family business, as a father, husband, son, and brother. I have realized I call it the black pile due to the layering of unresolved emotional abuse issues and leadership burdens.

As leaders struggling with depression, we lead two separate lives. On the outside, we live the “fake it ’till you make it” life; we lead with purpose, drive, and confidence. On the inside, we feel hopeless and fearful, waiting for the other shoe to drop. We purposely make excuses for our behavior, citing anything other than depression that bothers us. As a result, authenticity is often the first casualty of depression. The stigma surrounding depression is such that those who suffer are weak; the last thing we, as leaders, who struggle with depression, are weak. Though inauthentically, we still manage to lead successful companies; we push through.

In general, we stay away from deep and personal conversations about depression because of the subjectivity of the disease and the associated stigma. With any potential physical illness, doctors can request many physical tests. The science is quite strong for most physical diseases, and the diagnosis leads to established protocols and treatment – all very objective. Research is well-funded, and physical health breakthroughs happen with regularity. Depression or any other mental illness requires a subjective diagnosis. It is characterized as the invisible disease; there is no blood test and no cure. As a result, several misconceptions have become prevalent.

First, there is the infamous chemical imbalance in the brain. Serotonin is an important chemical and neurotransmitter with many functions in the human body. It is referred to as the happy enzyme because it contributes to well-being and happiness. In the late ‘50s and early ’60s, mental health professionals theorized a lack of this chemical causes depression – without empirical proof. They professed that since serotonin is responsible for happiness and depressed patients were extremely unhappy, the lack of serotonin must be the reason. Thus one of the most profitable segments of the pharmaceutical industry was born – anti-depressants. This theory has been debunked numerous times, yet big pharma, supported by a dwindling number in the mental health community, still stands by it.

For a very small minority, medication results in life-long relief. Sadly, for most, it becomes a never-ending cycle of new drugs and the associated dosage increases. The good news is that a new generation of therapists subscribes to other causes, primarily environment and trauma. The more contemporary therapists rely on talk therapy, alternative therapies, and a healthy routine, the less the reliance on medication.

Secondly, genetic disposition has been deemed a significant cause of depression, which has also been refuted. My mother, her mother, and several of her sisters struggled with depression, Yet, other than me, none of their children (7) struggle with mental illness. Researchers are convinced that no specific gene can trigger depression or other mental illnesses.

Unfortunately, many mental health professionals still rely on medication and a parasitic/addictive relationship with patients. Many Psychiatrists have thriving practices treating patients with high-frequency therapy sessions. This is one of the main reasons it may take a significant amount of time to secure an appointment – many therapists have a full roster of patients. Friends and colleagues have told me they save up the issues they are dealing with for their weekly therapy sessions. These doctors and therapists rely on outdated processes and therapies that do not effectively deal with today’s problems. Fortunately for me, my Psychiatrist taught me “take-home” techniques and eastern-based therapies that allowed me to reduce the frequency of appointments; I now see him when I need a tune-up, no different than a periodical visit with my GP. We would live in a different world if we treated a visit to a therapist no different from a visit to the family doctor. It must be therapists’ goal to assist their patients in accessing techniques and therapies that allow patients to heal themselves.  

We now realize depression is caused primarily by the environments we grew up in, and the grind of our current lives, resulting in detaching from what is essential.

  • Detaching from our work environment – We have no control over our work environment- what if we lose a customer?
  • Detaching from the people we love and respect – We want to be left alone.
  • Detaching from emotional feelings – Who cares about me anyway?
  • Detaching from the natural world – We can’t be bothered to get outside.
  • Detaching from meaningful values – It’s too much work, and who cares anyway.
  • Detaching due to worry over financial issues – The life I’ve built for my family is so expensive; what if, in the future, I can’t afford it?
  • Detaching due to childhood trauma – An environment of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, left unresolved, has life-long implications.
  • Detaching due to the loss of authenticity – It’s easier to tell them what they want to hear.

Does any of the above resonate for you?

Removing the stigma of weakness requires education and the leader’s positive sense of self-regard to realize they are not responsible for causing depression. Only then can we begin to normalize the conversation around mental illness.

Imagine a life having overcome and managing depression. Imagine a life where the day starts full of hopefulness and anticipation, not fear. Imagine a life without fear of disclosure of the disease. What could we, as leaders struggling with depression, achieve? Simply experiencing happiness would be a quantum leap in our lives – wouldn’t it?

Finally, In my personal and professional mental health journey have discovered three truths,

Mental wellness starts at the top of the org chart.

A mentally healthy leader leads a mentally healthy organization.

A mentally healthy organization has a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Although I still experience tough days, I have learned to manage and overcome my anxiety and depression. As such, I have dedicated my life to challenging the status quo of the attitudes, causes, and effects of depression on leadership and the team, leading me to help leaders heal themselves and their teams.

Until next time, here’s to your excellent mental health.

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