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By Joe K. Mungai, MSW, LMSW, CTP
How well do you understand depression and trauma?
I hope you’ll find the lessons I have learned in the course of my own journey, from an immigrant’s perspective, helpful.
I wrote this article as a resource for members of the African diaspora community struggling with depression, including trauma, and as a tool for those interested in helping those among us who are exhibiting signs and symptoms suggesting depression. The lessons shared though are relevant and applicable to many people all across the globe.
Depression has taken a toll on many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a community in diaspora, we have experienced losses; several members of our community have committed suicide, with depression being a major contributor to these horrific tragedies. The struggles with depression among many of our members have been ongoing even before the pandemic hit. But the problem is at its highest level now (both at home and abroad), given the circumstances that many find themselves in, such as lacking resources and support. As a community, we have to act urgently now and come to the aid of those in need. One life lost to suicide is one too many. The loss of a loved one is so devastating, it creates a host of other stressors in life since those impacted experience financial loss, the end of a relationship, and other painful experiences. I addressed this subject in detail, including offering practical steps one can take to start healing from such devastation, in my book, LIFE AFTER LOSS: YOU CAN HEAL YOUR HEART.
This article is about depression, but we will also touch on trauma because of how closely these two (depression & trauma) are connected. People are at risk of developing anxiety or depression after experiencing traumatic events in life. I use the term events instead of an event because research shows, people don’t just experience one event (traumatic event), but, many times, they experience multiple events creating multiple traumas at different times in life. New experiences cause new stressors which can exacerbate past trauma or create new ones. Our past and current situations in life have a lot to do with the struggles we go through as a result of depression and trauma, and how resilient we are on the path towards recovery.
The Journey to Better Opportunities
New experiences such as resettlement after immigrating to a new country can trigger trauma. The pursuit of a better life sometimes becomes a journey that has no breaks or stops. And even when things get better, the cost at which that happens can be too high, creating a whole new set of stressors. That by itself can be a source of trauma that leaves one feeling depressed.
TIP: Trauma is a deeply personal experience that no one can define for someone else. What might look like insignificant experience for one person can be a huge source of trauma for another person.
Members of refugee community including immigrants are likely to grieve the loss of familiar surroundings they left behind in their home countries for the promise of a better life. For the most part, this is in search of greener pastures, or safety. Not long ago, I read a post on a WhatsApp group that said, “many of us living abroad are economic refuges,” and rightly so, because many of us come from nations that are economically depressed. And so we left to seek better opportunities. The situations in our home countries were created by corruption, poor political leadership, wars, and state-sponsored tribal clashes.
TIP: Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Trauma Informed Care
Evidence based research has helped us understand more and more about the impact trauma has on people and so trauma informed care is being pushed for use as a mode of treatment in the mental health field including other systems affecting human lives. This calls on us to consider our past experiences as well as those we are undergoing right now. In your own life, you need to be aware of how you are interacting with new experiences, and how you are responding to those from the past. I highly encourage you to put effort to understand the basics of trauma informed care not just for the way it will positively change how you treat yourself (with dignity and care), but also as it relates to the way you minister to other people by being mindful of their total well-being.
What is Depression?
Depression is a serious mood disorder that causes severe symptoms that affect how one feels and thinks. It affects one’s activities such as eating, sleeping or working (source: National institute of mental health).
Depression makes a person feel trapped inside themselves. It creates (makes one feel) a sense of desperation, fear and hopelessness.
I have heard people who have experienced depression say, depression can start just like how rain starts – slowly, little by little, but quickly turn into a flash flood and completely overwhelm a person. Whether it’s a teenager or an adult struggling with depression, it is painful both emotionally and mentally.
For a number of reasons, depression can go undetected and undiagnosed, leading to devastating consequences because of lack of treatment. When you know you have depression, address it immediately. If depression lingers for two weeks or more, that can be an indication that you are suffering from clinical depression.
TIP: Clinical depression is the more-severe form of depression, also known as major depression or major depressive disorder. It isn’t the same as depression caused by a loss, such as the death of a loved one, or a medical condition, such as a thyroid disorder. (Dr. Daniel Hall-Flavin: Mayo Clinic’s experts)
What are the Tell-tale Signs of Depression?
Depression ranges in seriousness from mild, temporary cases of sadness, to severe, persistent episodes.
Many people suffering from depression may:
Feel sad, hopeless or empty.
Feel extremely tired with no explanation.
Have difficulty falling asleep, or sleeping too much.
Not getting pleasure from activities they once enjoyed.
Additional behaviors that could be signs of depression include:
Physical symptoms, such as headaches, digestive problems, and pain
This list is in no way exhaustive.
Depression and Suicide
Not everyone experiencing depression thinks about death or considers suicide, but a number of people do so after being depressed for a while, especially in case of clinical depression. Some of the people who, because of depression, start having suicidal thoughts, act on those thoughts.
As I mentioned earlier, our community has lost a number of people to suicide. The same has happened to people we know in our home countries.
It’s never easy for the family and friends who are left by someone who commits suicide. When the family gets the news of a loved one having committed suicide, they are first hit by shock and disbelief. Suicide creates a lot of distress to those who are left behind. Research shows it takes an average of four to seven years for families to grieve and to come to terms with the death of their loved one as a result of suicide, before they can start healing from the pain and horror. This is not to say that they get over it. I don’t think losing a family member or a friend to suicide is something you ever get over. Even after many years, a memory may trigger anguish, as if the death has just happened. Suicide leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of loved ones in the family as a whole. By God’s grace, the loss may eventually be smoothed out by love and care for one another among those who are left.
Don’t wait until depression overtakes you like a flood. Seek help before it’s too late.
Who is at Risk of Committing Suicide?
Those who feel trapped in their current situation right now.
Those who are depressed or have experienced depression in the past.
Those who have attempted suicide in the past.
Those experiencing hopelessness and don’t see any reason to be alive.
A person experiencing these negative feelings can quickly fall prey to suicide. In fact, research supports that observation; loss of meaningful relationships, lack of purpose or meaning in life and hopelessness is the #1 reason many people commit suicide. Loss of both purpose and important relationships can lead to depression, which can lead to a host of other negative feelings that push people towards thinking of suicide.
What about Trauma?
There are a few things you need to know about trauma.
As I mentioned earlier people may be at risk of developing anxiety or depression after experiencing a traumatic event. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “a person’s emotional response to an extremely negative (disturbing) event that someone has been exposed to.”
According to DSM, exposure to elements that cause traumatic events must result from one or more of the following situations, in which the individual:
Directly experiences the traumatic event.
Witnesses the traumatic event in person.
Learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental).
Experiences first-hand, repeated, or extreme exposure to aversive (unpleasant) details of the traumatic event (does not learn about it through media, pictures, television, or movies, except for work-related events) Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)
People respond to traumatic events in different ways. What this means, is that we are all affected by trauma differently. Even when two people, for example, have experienced similar situations, each one of them will come out impacted differently. That’s why it’s never right to compare two different people who might have experienced similar events in life but came out of it differently. One person might still be in need of more time to recover when another person who was hit by the same experience seems totally unaffected. I have heard of people asking their friends or family members, “when will you ever get over this, like so and so?” Research continues to explore why different people respond or react to trauma differently, but one thing is clear: those who have experienced trauma in the past and found resources and support during their traumatic experience have high chances of recovery and are able to move on quickly with life than someone who has never recovered from a past trauma, or someone who faced one traumatic event after another, leaving them without enough time to recover. Lack of resources or having less support during traumatic events determines how quick a person recovers or become resilient and ready to face future life challenges once again. And so, depression or trauma is not something you can tell someone to just snap out of.
TIP: The need for resources is essential to help individuals process their experience in a healthy way and to regain hope through secure and safe emotional connections.
I was impressed not too long ago when I learned in a WhatsApp group that one of our active community organizers had started a food items collection drive in their church with the goal of making food available to fellow immigrants given the dire situation many of them find themselves in right now, because of the disruptions caused by COVID-19 pandemic. Meeting people’s basic needs is a great way of lessening the impact of stress when people are experiencing a traumatic event. This is one of the reasons I wrote my new book, ADJUSTING TO LIFE IN AMERICA (The Ultimate Guide: What You Need to Know). It’s a resource guide aimed at helping immigrants and members of refuge community understand the resources and supports that can make a difference while living abroad and at the same time provide guidance about where to find such resources, including how to make use of them to improve their quality of life.
How Do You Overcome and Arise Above Depression and Trauma?
Research shows one way to recover from trauma is by building safety and empowerment in your life, among other things. Trauma causes us to lose trust, feel unsafe and disempowered. And so, it makes sense that to heal and recover from it, feeling safe and empowered is paramount. If you are a parent and your kids have experienced trauma, it’s important you know: safety and well-being equal better outcomes for them and for the whole family. This is because safety and well-being nurture stability.
Here are some things you can start doing right now to feel safe and minimize the effects of depression or suicidal thoughts.
Don’t stay isolated. Stay connected with people you trust and share (even on the phone) your story with them. We heal by telling our stories.
Seek out emotional support and socialize (even on the phone) with friends and family members.
Learn strategies for making social connections so that you can get involved in social activities and hobbies of your liking.
Learn ways to manage stress, such as meditation and mindfulness. We have posted several articles related to managing stress and more on our website: Africanresourecescenter.net
Guard your sleep; make sure you are sleeping enough. Stick to a regular schedule and make healthy lifestyle choices, including nutritionally healthy meals to help promote better mental health and recovery.
When it comes to making major decisions in life like changing jobs or relocating, it’s important to delay them until your depression symptoms improve.
Avoid too much caffeine or alcohol so as not to interfere with your sleep, in order to allow your mind to recover and heal.
Avoid known stressors when you are coping with a tough situation, or after a stressful event.
Avoid situations and people whom you know will add stress to your life. Be creative when it comes to dealing with your family members, including being vocal with them if they are the source of additional stress.
Practice faith in action. Never doubt in the dark what you have believed in the light. This means that you have to refuse to doubt or forget what you have always believed (positive beliefs) or how God has seen you through in the past- during the time of need. Tell your heart to beat again.
Keep a journal. Writing down experiences help find healing. When you write, a pen becomes a powerful tool that helps you to transfer some of what you feel from your deep innermost being on to a paper. You can even go a step further and write your experiences in a book in a way they will make a difference in the life of another person. That way, you end up making lemonade out of lemon. You can use your experiences (even negative) to make something you can share with the world. Your experiences become an extension of yourself and a powerful way to impact others and make the world a better place. If you have read my book, BROKEN JUSTICE: WHEN LAWLESS GANGS CAPTURE THE STATE, you understand what I mean by this concept. The world is waiting for your message, and that message is hidden in your story that life experiences have given you.
Helping Someone Cope with Depression or a Traumatic Event
Let’s be our brother’s keeper and check on each other and allow ourselves to be a bridge that others can use to find help and support.
I know it’s tough trying to help when a person doesn’t want to talk about how they feel or what happened. It can be hard to keep making the effort to get the person to respond, especially if you feel you’re being pushed away. But you’re in a good place to help when you:
» Understand the definition of depression or traumatic event.
» Can identify some of the signs and symptoms.
» Are willing to keep offering help even if it’s not accepted at first.
Remember, your caring supportive attitude to those struggling with depression or after a traumatic event may make a big difference in how well and how fast the traumatized person recovers.
If you do this, then my writing of this article will not be in vain.
Those who are leaders in our community know we are doing all we can to address the issue of suicide. I ask that we find more creative ways to become strong allies in helping each other find resources and share them with those in our sphere of influence who need help. It’s in that spirit that I request your help to share this article far and wide. I’m optimistic that our efforts in sharing of resources will contribute to improving health outcomes for all who apply what is shared and learned.
Trauma and Unhealthy Ways of Coping
As a coach, when working with my students through the process of finding their purpose in life, this is what I tell them: what you choose to not deal with will ultimately become the governor of your life (consciously or unconsciously) and mostly in a destructive way. This is the reason you see people doing things which for the most part, they don’t know why they do them – addiction, destructive lifestyles, inappropriate relationships, risky behaviors, and others of similar kind. This is the nature of unresolved trauma, which includes dealing with past loss and grief, aftermath of war and violence (domestic abuse), and childhood abuse. All these are capable of producing destructive behaviors in one’s life.
The Body Keeps the Score
Perhaps you have heard about the saying, “the body keeps the score,” made famous by Bessel Van Der Kolk, a leading trauma specialist in 2014. He made that saying famous through his work, research and sharing with the world about the impact of trauma on the body and mind. Now, if the body- mind keep scores of everything that has happened to a person (traumatic experiences), when the deep emotional hurts (caused by traumatic events) go unaddressed, they start finding ways to come out and most of the time; they do it in unhealthy ways.
Do you feel irritable, isolated or withdrawn? Do you find yourself working all the time? Drinking too much? These could be part of unhealthy coping strategies and may be clues that you are depressed or you have unsolved trauma; you need to seek help or at least start the process of addressing them using healthy coping strategies.
Anger and rage that is hard to control when it’s awakened could be another clue that you are struggling with trauma. If you constantly walk around full of rage and you feel like a ticking bomb waiting to be touched so you can blow up, that could be a sign of unresolved trauma. Knowing the problem helps you start working towards your healing. Don’t wait until you blow up and leave behind destruction that will look worse than that of a wild fire. The source of this anger is mostly deep unresolved hurts.
Many people keep the feelings and experiences that are eating them from inside locked up. They do not share with a trusted person, in order to get the feelings out. As we noted earlier, we heal by telling our stories.
Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help
We all need a little help to deal with life events that cause us stress. Many effective treatments are available for depression. So don’t try to tough it out on your own; the outcome could be perilous.
Remember, without treatment, depression is unlikely to go away for some people, and it may get worse. Evidence-based research shows that untreated depression can make you and the people close to you miserable. It can cause problems in every aspect of your life, including your health, career, relationships, your personal safety and that of others.
I want you to know:
If you find yourself thinking how you may hurt yourself or having thoughts of attempting suicide, get help right away!
Here in America, Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Call a suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use its webchat on suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat and speak to someone.
Talk to a friend, a family member, a local pastor, a spiritual leader or a faith person in your community. This is important no matter how hard it may be to talk about your feelings.
It’s a sign of strength to ask for advice or seek help when you need it.
Upon reading this article, if you have questions, please feel free to contact me – firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
As a life skill coach, a therapist, and a licensed chaplain, Joe’s mission is to help educate others become conscious of their entrapment and empower them so they can find freedom and joy in life. He is passionate about helping people cope and grow through their experiences in life-changing circumstances.
Joe is a social worker researcher, therapist and an author and is the founder of African Resources Center International – (www.africanresourcescenter.net) a platform focused on helping immigrants and refuge community adjust to life in America. He is the author of seven books including ADJUSTING TO LIFE IN AMERICA: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE OF WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW which he wrote to orient and educate immigrants and members of refuge community as they adjust in America.
Joe can be reached at: email@example.com