What Runners Need to Know About Depression

ONE OF THE LESSONS I’ve learned is that when something taps you on the shoulder more than a few times, it deserves attention. This week’s column came about from a consistent tap I’ve felt in the past year related to depression and suicide.

We all ebb and flow through highs and lows in life, but sometimes, the lows can pull us into a dark place where it feels like there is no way out. There have been many occasions this season where runners have reached out to me for help while suffering through depression and, in some cases, thoughts of suicide.

I’m writing this column in memory of a friend who couldn’t find her way through the darkness. She was a runner and the last person I’d expect to end her own life. But the shame that still exists about depression can lead its sufferers into isolation and, without help, into a life-threatening situation. Mental illness is a topic that needs more discussion, one that affects our running world more often than we may believe.

What I know for sure is that when dealing with something as powerful as depression, the best move is to reach out and ask for help. I asked my running friend Dr. Belinda Newcomer (who has a PhD in psychology and is a Licensed Mental Health Professional) for guidance on how to help someone who is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. Here is what she had to share:

The symptoms of depression are:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Change in sleeping patterns – more or less
  • Anger or irritability
  • Crying more
  • Change in appetite, or weight loss or gain
  • Isolation
  • Loss of energy
  • Reckless behavior

Depression is:
The consistent and unrelenting feeling of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness that affects your ability to function (eat, sleep, work, enjoy life) daily.

What to do if someone in your life threatens suicide:
First and foremost, take them at their word and call the Lifeline at 13 11 14 or the police to do a welfare check. It’s important to remember that they want to get better and they need help to do so.

Check in on them and avoid leaving them alone. Remove anything they could potentially use to hurt themselves. If you’re close enough with the person to accompany them to the doctor, talk them into going, even for an unrelated issue (like a running injury). Once there, bring up the depression and suicidal thoughts with the doctor. It is vital to bypass the fear of them being mad at you in order to get them the help they need.

If you’re in a situation in which you don’t know the person well – say, you see that they’ve posted their intentions on social media – you can contact the lifeline number to learn how to navigate the situation and get them help.

Sadly, many people don’t share their thoughts of suicide. However, even in these cases, there may be telling behavioural changes – they may isolate themselves, skip activities that used to bring them joy, or drink and/or use drugs.

How running and exercise can help:
Running CANNOT take the place of professional help for a depressed person. It can, however, complement appropriate treatment. Exercise (including running) produces feel-good chemicals in the brain after about 10 to 20 minutes of activity, and getting in regular exercise improves self-esteem and confidence. The social interaction of running with a group or a friend can also be helpful.

Tips for dealing with your own depression:
First and foremost: Reach out for professional help. Many people are nervous to see a therapist, but it is the healthiest thing a person suffering from depression can do.

Once you’ve sought help, any of these steps can complement your treatment plan:

  • Keep running. On low motivation days, set your sights lower – tell yourself that you’ll just head out for five minutes. Often, once you’re out, you’ll want to keep going.
  • Go for a walk in a park around other people. A simple walk in a community can lift your spirits.
  • Create activity dates with friends or a group to stay connected socially.
  • What you eat can affect how you feel. Focus on reducing sugar and processed foods and replacing them with whole foods.

How to find a therapist:
The best way to find a therapist is to ask people you know for recommendations. Or, look on local running forums or social media groups for recommended doctors within the active community. If possible, seek out doctors and therapists who share your love of running. Google potential doctors and therapists to learn more about their lifestyles and body of work. If a particular therapist doesn’t seem like a good fit or makes you feel uncomfortable, trust your gut and find a different one.

It is important to value your own health and wellbeing as well as that of your fellow runners, to be present during their tough times, and to reach out when help is needed. A conversation, a hug, or a compassionate ear could save a life. The more we talk about depression and other mental illnesses, the more they will be seen as a normal part of life, and fewer sufferers will feel so alone in their struggles.


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