Reduce Your Depression By Helping Someone


P2180214Dr. Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, was once asked following a lecture on mental health: “What would you advise a person to do, if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?”

Most people thought he would say: “Consult a psychiatrist.”

But he didn’t. He surprised everyone when he replied: “Leave your house, find someone in need and do something to help that person.”

I know this is going to upset folks. When I posted it on my Facebook page, the reviews weren’t so nice. One woman said that hearing things like this makes her feel worse because it is as though Menninger is saying that she’s depressed because she’s self-absorbed. Another person was angry at me because he thought that spreading this kind of horse poop online deepens and thickens the stigma that we have to work so hard against.

I get that.

For six years I experienced suicidal thoughts. In that time, I helped many people stuck in the Black Hole of Bile (depression) and volunteered my time to various programs. But I still wanted to die. I would try my best to lift someone up, and then return home to Google “Easiest ways to get cancer.”

However, this perspective—transcending your pain in loving acts of service–is also full of hope if you can look at it that way.

According to a study in “Pain Management Nursing,” nurses suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain. “Despite encountering challenges, the rewards of this altruistic endeavor outweighed any frustrations experienced by volunteers with chronic pain,” says the abstract.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California and the author of The How of Happiness, has studied this topic for years. She and one of her graduate students received a grant from the Science of Generosity competition at the University of Notre Dame to find out if this theory is really true. According to her research, it is. People who have a tendency toward depression, she asserts, can often help themselves by helping others.

I just watched the movie “Patch Adams,” so the dialogue is fresh in my mind between Patch (Robin Williams) and Carin (Monica Potter), a fellow student with whom Patch has fallen in love, as they walk along the beautiful campus where they attend medical school. She has just found out that he was in a mental hospital in his past.

Patch: “The mental ward was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Corin: “What did the doctors do to help you?”

Patch: “The doctors didn’t help me.

The patients helped me.

They helped me realize that by helping them I could forget about my own problems.

And I did.

I really helped some of them.

It was an incredible feeling, Carin.

There was one patient named Rudy. I helped him be able to pee.

But for the first time in my life, I forgot about my own problems.”

Earlier in the movie, inside the psych ward, Patch pretends to see the squirrels that his roommate Rudy is so afraid of—the reason he won’t walk the five feet across their room to the bathroom. Taking out pretend rifles, the two guys shoot at the squirrels until they laugh themselves silly.

That moment in the real Patch Adam’s life (the movie is based on a true story) is what inspired him to become a doctor.

I believe in the healing power of helping people because I have experienced it this last past year. I was just emerging from my last depressive episode in May of 2014, when I decided I was going to create an online community for people with chronic depression. Since then, I have felt a significant decline in depressive symptoms—crying, insomnia, irritability, death thoughts, fatigue, loss of appetite. Trying to help others cope with their conditions has empowered me to manage my own.

It’s like the story about the guy who stood at the edge of a cliff, ready to jump … until someone else arrived at the same cliff who also wanted to jump. The first guy immediately tries to talk the second guy out of jumping, and in his mission, he forgets all about jumping himself.

Join the conversation on Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community. 

Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.

Originally published on Sanity Break on Everyday Health.


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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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10 Responses
  1. The most important thing I see out of this advice is that as long as it makes you happy then it is beneficial and I see this as the case for the majority of the public. If a person is selfish on the other hand and hates “wasting” time on others it can be detrimental. Overall, great suggestions though!

    If anything, look at your diet or do other activities that help control your mind. I’ve been severe depression and I’d wasted money on anti-depressants, I had no appetite, and wasted away my days in bed. Eventually, I found a natural treatment system that got me out of that dark hole and I’ve had no symptoms of depression ever since. So if you need help, feel free to contact me!

    1. Natali

      What did you do to make yourself feel better??
      I have severe anxiety and depression and I have tried anti-depresents but it just made me feel worst

    2. Dave

      I have been severely depressed for years and on meds for 15 or more. They have never helped as far as I could tell and now I’m off. I am still majorly depressed, in therapy and can’t say I’ve turned the corner. The feelings I have been having are becoming more intense and I’m getting more and more concerned.
      What worked for you?

  2. Jaqueline D

    What Dr. Menninger says is all fine and dandy but it certainly isn’t doable for me. I cannot stop crying. It is constant. The only way to stop the crying is to drug out with a sedative and then I’m a useless zombie. I would like to help out. In the past I volunteered by feeding the homeless, I thought I would get satisfaction out of that but I was just miserable. Any hope for me?

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Jaqueline, I’m very sorry for your pain, and I can totally appreciate your comment. Articles like that would totally piss me off when I was in the midst of a depressive episode, and I thought about that before I published it. YES, there is a lot of hope for you. It is understandable that you can’t help right now if you are very depressed. It was more for mild to moderate depression. Continue to do the things you do to get through the day. That in itself is a victory, and just know, please know, that it WILL pass. Sometimes you don’t even have to do anything differently and it passes. That’s how our systems are built. Are cells aren’t the same from one day to another. And please, please, please hang on to hope.

  3. Tracy Rafferty

    Someone might want to tell the good Dr. that Patch Adams kills himself in the end of the movie and unfortunately, so did Robyn Williams!

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