On a Sunday evening in late October, James Clement Jr. texted his parents and told them he loved them.
Not long after, he took his own life.
The 44-year-old Shenendehowa High School graduate had battled depression for about six years, and the burden of the mental illness finally became too much for him to bear, said his parents, James and Mary Anne Clement of Ballston Lake.
“He was just a really nice kid, you know, smart and funny and witty and just fun to be around. I just can’t believe he’s gone,” said Mary Anne Clement, wiping away tears.
Their son, who lived in Bedford, Mass., was going through a divorce, was worried about money and was also concerned about the prospect of losing partial custody of his two children, Clement said. He was seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist and had been prescribed medication to help combat his depression, she noted.
“We knew he was doing all the right things,” she said. “We were a distance away, but he got a lot of encouragement from us and his sisters.”
James and Mary Anne Clement hope sharing their story with the public will save others from experiencing the heartache they are suffering.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 25 million Americans will have an episode of major depression this year. It’s a serious, lifelong medical illness that affects thoughts, feelings, behavior, mood and physical health.
Symptoms include sadness, poor concentration, insomnia, fatigue, changes in appetite, excessive guilt and suicidal thoughts. Left unchecked, it can lead to serious impairment in daily functioning and suicide.
Even mild to moderate forms of depression can change a person’s functioning and put them at higher risk for illnesses like heart disease, said Christine Moutier, medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
During fall, as the days grow shorter and sunlight is more scarce, seasonal depression becomes an issue for many people, as well, and those who already struggle with depressive symptoms can see them grow worse, said Jenness Clairmont, clinical director for Samaritan Counseling Center in Scotia.
“Anybody who is prone to have depressive symptoms will certainly see a spike in depressive disorders closer to this time of year, and people need an increased degree of treatment all the way through the holiday season,” she said.
The pressures of the holidays can also compound the symptoms of depression.
“I think there’s a lot of stress inherent in the holidays,” said Shirley McMorris, clinical director for Karner Psychological Associates in Guilderland. “People are dealing with their families, they’re traveling, they’re juggling financial problems, and also we’ve got the cold weather and the shorter amount of daylight. All of those things kind of make a perfect storm.”
Everybody has a bad day now and again, but if those bad days start to string together for an extended period and begin to affect day-to-day functioning, it’s time to investigate the problem with a professional, said Moutier.
“It might even be less about mood and more about changes in their sleep, feeling a kind of heaviness in their body, maybe some changes with their thinking process, either slowing down or feeling they can’t quite get themselves going in the same way or organize their thoughts or their work as well,” she said.
Family members are often the first to detect changes that signal a slide into depression, she said, suggesting loved ones think back on past winters to see if they can detect a behavioral pattern.
“Of course, we all have normal mood variability, but when it’s going on for days, a couple weeks at a time, and if they make the connection, ‘Gosh, it seems like last year just before the holidays this same slump was happening,’ I think it’s a very proactive thing to have it checked out by a professional,” she said.
The Clements said their son was a master at hiding his pain. They were aware that sometimes he wouldn’t take his medication because he didn’t like the way it made him feel and then would self-medicate with alcohol. Despite that, they thought he was coming out of his depression, they said.
“He just had all of his floors redone; he just had new double-paned windows put into his house; he just had his attic heavily insulated; he just got a couple more cords of wood to bring him through the winter,” his father recalled.
Those future-minded actions were encouraging, but on Oct. 20, the Clements listened to a doctor tell them their son was on a ventilator in a hospital intensive care unit, and they were left second guessing what had triggered his suicide.
Most depression does not end in suicide, but living with depression can be debilitating. People who think a loved one might be depressed should approach the topic with an attitude of concern and shouldn’t necessarily say they suspect depression, said Clairmont.
“Maybe they’ve noticed that the person is less active than they typically are, they notice that they’re less interested in work, that they’re not going out with friends as often. Just come from a place of concern and maybe a stance of kind of feeling a little confused about that,” she suggested.
Seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist isn’t necessarily the best first step. Clairmont recommended starting with a visit to a primary care physician for a general screening to rule out any physical issues.
“It’s also a less stigmatized thing when people start with their primary care physician, because people feel like maybe it’s something that’s happening to them physically instead of feeling like they have a psychological or emotional problem,” she noted.
If depression is diagnosed, and in addition to counseling, medication is deemed necessary, it’s not something that should be feared, said Moutier. The right medication, in a proper dose, should not change a person’s personality in unwelcome ways.
“It should be that the person feels like their normal self again,” she explained.
Modern antidepressants are much more tolerable than their predecessors, she noted, stressing the drugs don’t simply mask symptoms, but rather treat depression and can prevent it from reappearing in the future.
There are also some proactive steps people can take on their own to help lessen depression. Fifteen to 20 minutes of daily cardiovascular exercise has been shown to boost mood, Clairmont said.
“What they’re finding in terms of what exercise does for people chemically in the brain is comparable to what an antidepressant medication would do, and more often than not, now doctors that are prescribing antidepressant medication are stating that they won’t do that unless people are willing to participate in an exercise regimen in conjunction with it, as well as counseling,” she said.
The chosen exercise should be something enjoyable.
“Don’t force yourself to do things you won’t like because you won’t follow through on them and if you’re somebody who’s prone to depression, that will actually perpetuate your feelings of low self-worth or lack of motivation,” she cautioned.
Extra light exposure has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression. Additional rays can be soaked up during a walk on a sunny morning or while sitting in the glow of a bright light that simulates sunshine. Taking vitamin D supplements can also help, if a doctor confirms a vitamin D deficiency.
Relaxing — something that can be a special challenge during the holidays — can also help lessen depression.
“We all try to decorate our homes and get all the right presents and that kind of thing. It really could be just a time to enjoy. I think whatever you can do to lessen the stress that you’re under makes a lot of sense,” said McMorris.
Eating right can provide positive benefits too, noted Christina Harrington-Stutzmann, a licensed psychotherapist who practices in Saratoga Springs and Scotia. Doing something as simple as wearing bright colors can help to boost your mood as well, she noted.
As they make their way through the first winter without their son, the Clements said they feel the loss of their firstborn acutely, and the tragedy has left them depressed.
“So what do we do? We sleep a lot,” James Clement Sr. said.
The couple also has made plans to see a psychologist.
If she could speak with her son just one more time, Mary Anne Clement said she would tell him this: “The pain will go away. This will be taken care of. We just have to find the right combination of pills so that you feel OK, the right combination of psychiatry, family. Come back home. Come back home where there’s a lot of support.”