Trauma Turtles: What to do when someone you love is depressed

I was walking around Green Lake Friday morning when I came to one of my favorite sites: the turtle log. Adult and baby turtles loll together in a bumpy chain on a fallen tree in the lake, catching the sun. I counted twenty one of them.

Turtles are amazing creatures, both because they are prehistoric and because they come with housing installed. When a threat comes along, they pull their head, feet, and tail inside the shell where very little can get to them.

People experiencing depression do this as well. And yet, unlike our full time RV-lifestyle friends the turtles, we homo-sapiens are the result of fifty thousand years of evolution and when we respond to perceived emotional threats by withdrawing from our family, friends, and environment, it is at the peril of our mental and ultimately physical health.

Withdrawal is a symptom of depression that becomes self-reinforcing: it feels safer to stay inside a small and predictable life experience. In the same way an angst-y teenager wants to paint their bedroom walls black and leave the curtains shut, a depressed adult (or child) develops a preference for the very things that drive depression; Staying in bed, watching TV, not eating, avoiding friends, staying indoors, not exercising, not sleeping all contribute to depression.

 When a depressed person is told, “You need to get out more! Enjoy your life more! Do something fun!” even though this advice is true, they respond by withdrawing even more. Why? Not to drive you nuts but because it feels too raw, too painful to risk coming out of their shell.

What can you do? Offer to take them to a therapist. If finances are tight, look up reduced fee therapy online or call your local community mental health center. Offer to book the first appointment for them and provide transportation.

Take them for a walk. Gentle movement and undemanding companionship are wonderful sources of comfort during an emotional emergency.

Get them a massage or to an energy healer such as a Reiki practitioner. Healing touch is now being taught to nursing students (a main stream medical population) for one simple reason: it works.

If you have ANY concerns about suicide, TALK ABOUT IT! Bring it up! Ask, “Are you thinking about hurting or killing yourself?” Asking about suicidal ideation will not push a non-suicidal person into becoming suicidal anymore than having a fire extinguisher in your kitchen makes you engage in arson.

If your friend or family member says, “yes,” or “I’m not sure” or anything other than “no” then you say, “I love you and I need to make sure you are safe.” Call your local crisis hotline (in Seattle its 206 461-3222) for support. You will then be guided by trained volunteers about how to help keep your friend or family member as safe as possible.

Ultimately we must leave shells to the experts: turtles. We humans are thin skinned because we need contact with each other to survive.