Treating depression differently

Queen’s Blue Sky Project is looking to link depression to genetics and early childhood experiences

Visitors at the Kuluta Buddhist Centre on Wellington St. participate in a meditation led by Kelsang Donsang on Tuesday night.
Visitors at the Kuluta Buddhist Centre on Wellington St. participate in a meditation led by Kelsang Donsang on Tuesday night.
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Facilitators of the Blue Sky Project conduct interviews with Queen’s students at the mood lab in the Craine Building.
Facilitators of the Blue Sky Project conduct interviews with Queen’s students at the mood lab in the Craine Building.
Photo: 

Maayke Schurer struggled with depression. The practicing Buddhist visits with a psychologist regularly, but said she’s learned how to deal with it largely on her own.

“I’ve found that the most powerful help is simply recognizing the inherent wisdom that is already inside me,” said Schurer, an ArtSci ’03 alumnus. “Through meditation, I’ve gained the momentum to help myself.”

Kate Harkness, the head of Queen’s Blue Sky Project, said the most effective long-term therapy resembles Schurer’s method of becoming your own therapist.

“It helps to prevent them from getting depressed again in the future,” she said, adding that a form of meditation called mindfulness meditation is proven to have a physiological effect on those with depression.

“There’s evidence at the neurological level that mindfulness meditation actually stops some of the cognitive processes that are really negative in depression.”

The Blue Sky Project began in Toronto four years ago in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. The goal is to determine the causes of depression by examining the interplay between DNA and the experiences of early life.

“We think that those two things, the genetic vulnerability and the early environment, work together to make some people less able to cope with stress than others,” she said.

Harkness, who was principle investigator for the Project in Toronto, said they relocated to Queen’s in September to focus on undergraduate students.

“We really wanted to target depression in college students,” she said. “With most people who get depressed, we find that their first onsets of depression are in the university-age range.”

The Canadian Institute for Health Research funded the project with $650,000. Harkness, who has taught in Queen’s Pyschology department for 11 years, said campus is an ideal place for the project.

“Queen’s has such a vibrant student population and people are really interested in mental health here, more so than we found in Toronto,” she said. “Here there’s the Mental Health Awareness week and people over at [Queen’s] Health Counselling and Disability Services are really involved and interested in raising awareness of depression on campus.”

The Blue Sky Project recruits students struggling with depression to participate in a series of interviews. Participants speak about past and present stressful life experience, like transitioning to university or a history of abuse or neglect, to help Harkness and her team find correlations between stress and depression.

“People who have those sorts of [negative] early life experiences have a much more sensitized neurobiology to recent stress,” she said. “They require much lower levels of stress to trigger their episode than people who don’t have this history of maltreatment.”

Student subjects give a saliva sample so Harkness can record their genetic information, because phenotypes don’t just determine eye colour, they also code for particular personality styles, she said.

“You’re born with a particular temperamental style, and then that interacts with environmental insults.”

The project is concerned with observing three particular genes responsible for transmission of serotonin and other factors relating to stress and depression during the transitional period between early adolescence and early adulthood.

Harkness said this is because kids typically don’t experience depression—fewer than five per cent.

“[But] by the time these people are 18 [or] 19, their rates of depression equal those of older adults” Harkness said.

The Blue Sky Project is also concerned with raising awareness about depression on campus. According to Harkness, although most people have their first episode of depression in young adulthood, the vast majority of people aren’t getting treatment.

A Toronto-based group of researchers published a study this year on the effect of meditation on individuals with depression. The study, entitled “Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness,” used film to stimulate sadness in two sample groups. One group had participated in a meditation called Mindfullness Training and the other group hadn’t. The study concluded that the group exposed to meditation had reactions “associated with decreased depression scores.”

Local yoga instructor, Perri van Rossem, owns Living Yoga Studios. She said she’s seen cases in which yoga had a positive effect on people with depression.

“The nature of the human condition of suffering stems from the fragmented nature of the mind,” van Rossem said. “In the yogic tradition, what we seek to understand and recognize is that the disturbances of mind can be brought into a more balanced state only through the power of mind.”

She said because yoga is a tool for addressing the fragmented mind, it’s beneficial to individuals with depression.

“The practice is about a dedicated mental focus and concentration” said van Rossem.

“The external practice of yoga brings comfort and awareness to the body and breath. One can learn how to use the breath to calm the mind.

“As we move through these external practices, we move inward and to the practice of meditation.” She said meditation is the method by which we move away from the distractions, patterns, perceptions and habits of the mind to stillness—where clarity may be found.

Practicing yoga builds focus and concentration, developing the ability to observe patterns that cause depressive episodes and change those patterns.

The resident teacher at Kingston’s Kuluta Buddhist Centre, Kelsang Donsang, said the causes of suffering can be traced back to the mind and solved within it.

“If your mind is peaceful, no matter how bad outer conditions may be, you’re happy,” Donsang said. “If your mind is agitated, no matter how good they are, you’re miserable.”

Donsang advises individuals to pin-point every painful feeling, as soon as it’s experienced. Then, recognize one has the power to change the pain by looking back to the root cause and letting it go. Donsang said the individual should see a completely different effect arise because the root cause has been abandoned.

He described meditation as “observing your mind, observing the causes and effects, taking responsibility for the effects and taking responsibility for changing the causes.” Through meditation an individual can come to understand that a peaceful mind causes positive action, and an agitated mind causes negative action.

By relating current suffering to past suffering, Donsang said, it becomes easy to realize that recreating this agitated mind will certainly lead to the familiar pattern of suffering.

“By observing the mind and saying ‘no, no matter how much I experience difficult situations, I am going to keep a peaceful mind, and eventually, I’m going to make my way out of suffering’,” he said.

­— With files from Jake Edmiston

For more information on the Blue Sky Project, visit blueskyproject.ca

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