September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and 3rd among young adults. The issue is too serious to let slip by without an honest discussion. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 41,149 people committed suicide in the United States in 2013, 12.6 per 100,000. The suicide epidemic crosses all age groups and racial barriers, however, young adults (2.5%) made a suicide plan at a higher rate than older adults (1.35% for middle aged adults and .6% for older adults). People of mixed race have the highest rate of suicide while blacks have the lowest. All this is according to the CDC.
Statistics are cold and not what I want to talk about today. The story I want to share is about depression and more to the point, Seasonal Affective Disorder. It might seem like a strange topic for a personal finance blog until you consider socio-economic status does not insulate you from depression, suicidal thoughts, or actually killing yourself. Wealth is not a prescription for awesome mental health. Wealthy people may seek help because they have the money to pay for treatment or might have a stronger support group, but financial independence is not an elixir that cures depression or prevents suicide.
This is a hard article for me to write. Most people have a hard time understanding what I am about to say, especially if they know me or have seen me in a business setting. I suffer from manic-depression and came this close to being one of the statistics listed above. For a long time I could not understand why I felt the way I did when my life was so good. My marriage is great, I have two wonderful (and moral) daughters, a successful business, and financial independence. Drugs are not a part of my family. So why the deep bouts of depression?
It started when I was in high school, but really turned dark in my 20s when Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) doubled-down on the depression as the days shortened in the autumn. November and December were almost impossible times for me to stay alive. Only Mrs. Accountant kept me alive. I had the gun in my hand; I had the rope waiting for me in the barn. The pain was that deep.
When I informed my family I was thinking of writing this post they were supportive; when I said I wanted to provide solutions because I have beaten depression there was a resounding rebuttal. That is one of the truths about depression: those who have it sometimes do not think they are sick. Another truth is more sinister. There is a part of depression that draws you in. There is something comforting in the painful fog of depression, like an old friend. It is why it is so hard to avoid.
According to Psychology Today, about 10 million Americans are estimated to suffer from SAD and research shows as many as 4% of people suffer from bipolar. People with SAD suffer during different seasons, though the shorter days of autumn in the northern hemisphere tends to affect more people with SAD as winter approaches.
Manic-depression is a strange animal. I love, I really love, the manic phase. I get so much done and I feel on top of the world. Unfortunately, after the mania comes the depression. The swings are powerful. I am considered a fast cycler. That means I can swing from top to bottom more frequently than the average bipolar person. Sometimes the depression barges in when I am at my weakest. After working long hours for a long period of time, the exhaustion lowers my guard and the emotions rush in. It is so swift, so powerful, it takes my breath away. Before long I am with an old friend. It is a good thing I don’t keep a gun beside my bed.
Enough of the statistics and my problems. I am a solutions type of guy. I have found ways to reduce and alleviate the effects of manic-depression. If you are like me, medications do not work and have side effects which include suicidal thoughts. The best news I can offer is that SAD generally lessens with age; manic-depression does not.
The solutions I offer work for me. You are different! What works for me might work for you. Might. You need professional help to find solutions that work for you. Medication only works for some people. When medication is only a partial or a non-solution, you need to find anchors to help you through difficult times.
If you are having suicidal thoughts I want you to stop reading now and call your local suicide hotline or the National Suicide Hotline at:
When things get dark you need help. No matter how strong you are you must seek and accept help. I know it is hard. But your life depends on it. It doesn’t seem that way right now, but it will later.
Honing the depression side of bipolar is only half the battle. Taking the edge off the mania can reduce the depression side when it hits. The tug of SAD already is present as the days are noticeably shorter. You should be aware bright light helps, especially as the days bottom out in November and December. In NE Wisconsin November is the cloudiest month of the year. Coupled with the already short days it makes it very hard to push depression back.
Diet and exercise played a major role in reducing the wild swings of bipolar for me. Getting enough sleep also helps. This is really hard when your thoughts are racing, I know. I have a habit of living on very little sleep for long periods of time before I crash. The crash is not pretty. Usually I can keep the mania going for a bit longer in some cases to make it through a busy tax season or to push further into autumn so the SAD inspired depression is lessened.
The Christmas holiday with the pretty lights seems to also help. Once I make it that far I can focus on the upcoming tax season which seems to chip away at the depression until it is gone.
Summer is usually a good time for me. The longer days mean depression is subdued though not totally eliminated.
Regular exercise had played the largest role in reducing depression. The episodes are significantly reduced as long as I keep running and lifting. I take one day off per week and run three days and lift three days. It works for me. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain similar to prescription medications. The self-produced chemicals also seem to work better.
Stoic teachings also helped me immensely. By reading Seneca and Marcus Aurelius I have learned to let things go and only focus on the things I can control. For me, depression has been, in part, related to self-inflicted stress. When things go wrong the manic cycle starts spinning non-stop. Marcus Aurelius reminds me: Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been. Easier said than done. As with any philosophy, it is a work in progress. Small steps every day.
The days are getting shorter as I write this in late September. I can feel the tug of SAD around the edges of my mind. Luckily I am not in a mania phase waiting for the collapse.
This is deeply personal. How do you tell someone, or expose yourself to the world in a blog, you once held a gun in your hand and struggled to not put a bullet in your head. The perfect fantasy world people sometimes see from the outside of my life becomes totally real once you step inside for a moment. I am just like you. My life is a daily struggle to understand the world around me. The depression has certainly eased over the years, but as my family made clear, it is by no means conquered.
I am lucky in one way. I have a loving family as my support group. They do not judge me. They gently help me through the fog and night of depression until I emerge out the other side. The depression episodes tend to be much shorter in duration as a result.
Readers of this blog tend to have a higher net worth and income. Let me remind you that you and your family are not exempt from depression or any other mental illness. It is nothing to be ashamed of. We are all people with all the accompanying frailties. What defines who we are is how we work together to build a better us.