Written by HeartsetonLiving
Depression is no joke. It’s an illness that, at its worst, can kill.
Why, then, does it come in for such derision and dismissal?
Here in the UK, there are campaigns aplenty aimed at busting the stigma surrounding mental illness. There’s Time to Change in England and Wales, See Me in Scotland and the Change Your Mind campaign from The Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health. The Blurt Foundation exists to support people living with depression and to raise awareness about the condition. It encourages people to talk openly it. The #itaffectsme and #imnotashamed hashtags are prevalent on social media. Organisations and the myriad campaigns that exist for the primary purpose of tackling the stigma of mental illness, speaks volumes.
Change is occurring; depression is being discussed BUT I’m saddened to see more than a little stigma persists, more than 30 years after I first experienced it.
I first encountered mental illness when I was a child, with the illness and subsequent death by suicide of a parent. I soon got the message that what mattered most was not understanding or grieving for this death but that the knowledge that it was a suicide was hidden, never to be disclosed or discussed.
It became a colossal, red-faced, elephant in the room, so great was the weight of shame attached to it. I had to live with this, because I was very young and because that’s what was dictated by those around me. Yet, privately, I considered and questioned. I was curious. My parent had been ill, had been diagnosed with serious mental illness, had died by suicide. Although at that tender age I had no real awareness of what it meant to be mentally ill – I understood it to be something both ‘bad’ and ‘difficult’ - it seemed illogical to me to consider someone becoming ill and dying, in any way shameful.
Life with my own depression began in my late teens. Despite my initial honesty about how I was feeling, I was swiftly closed down by family and left in no doubt that this ‘weakness’, as they perceived it, was considered shameful. A family doctor compounded this view when he told me to ‘pull myself together’. I had already experienced suicidal thoughts, but these were dismissed as being nothing more than ‘dramatics’ or attention-seeking behaviour.
I’ve seen many people scoff at the description of depression as a life-threatening illness, most recently just a few months ago when my own depression again became life-threatening. It seems that many consider only physical conditions to be capable of threatening life – ones where death is beyond a person’s control. As they see it, suicide is a choice a person makes and furthermore, it’s often described as a selfish act and met with indignation and disgust.
How could they choose to do that to their family? What were they thinking? It’s SO selfish!
I believe … I know … that depression can be both profoundly disabling and life-threatening. I know this because I’ve lived with depression for more than 25 years. I’ve twice been bereaved by suicide and I survived an attempt I made on my own life a decade ago, all as a result of depression. You’ll excuse me if I don’t take kindly to assertions that depression can not be a life-threatening condition.
I’ve grown a great deal as a person and gained a good deal of knowledge about mental health since my first experiences of depression. I’m self-aware and have a very good understanding of my own mental illness. I’ve worked with mental health charities and I’m studying for a mental health qualification. Yet, in December, as with treatment, I began to emerge from a prolonged episode of major depression, the most severe I’d experienced for some years; I was still shocked to realise just how deep the depression had been and how much it had affected me. The idea of taking my own life had seemed a rational choice. I use the word ‘choice’ advisedly. I wasn’t in a position to make a considered choice because, although I didn’t realise that at the time, I had reduced capacity to do so. I could see no future. Depression removed my usual capacity for hope, depriving me entirely of any sense of it. I believed I had to die, that it was my only option, that otherwise I would suffer terrible, unendurable pain. The illness subdues the ‘essence’ of me and, at its worst, entirely disables my capacity to function as my usual self. I become withdrawn and my ability to communicate, to take care of myself, to perform simple daily tasks is significantly impacted.
Had I died by suicide, then yes, I would have taken deliberate steps to end my own life. However, it would not have been as a result of free and rational choice. I would have died of depression.
Accepting that depression or other mental illness can impede rational thought and alter the ordinarily sane workings of the mind, prompts stigma of its own that is firmly rooted in fear.
It’s 2016. We have astronauts in orbit around the Earth on the International Space Station, and worldwide communication is possible in the blink of an eye. But how many people feel able to speak freely about their experiences of depression, and other mental illness, without fearing censure?
I am, by my own admission, a chatterbox. I’m something of a Tigger, known for relentless positivity and boundless enthusiasm. I enjoy public speaking, something many people list as one of their greatest fears. I’m fascinated by communication and passionate about improving it, especially around mental illness and suicide prevention. It’s fair to say that I’m rarely lost for words! However, when depressed, it’s as though I’ve been fitted with a silencer. Depression steals my voice, replaces it with a wealth of guilt and shame. Understanding and support can go some way to easing those feelings. Stigma only compounds them.
I’d often happily shout from the rooftops about mental health and my experiences of it, if it helps to break down barriers and promote understanding. I will campaign without shame. Yet, even with my chatty tendencies there are instances when I am reluctant to speak openly about my mental illness, particularly when making new friends. I am all too aware that stigma persists. No matter how determined I am to be part of the movement for change, there are times when I feel too vulnerable to disclose that I have depression because I fear negative reactions. I will continue to challenge myself to be honest nonetheless. I hope it will become easier as efforts to combat stigma persist, and more attitudes change. In the case of those few who refuse to be enlightened, preferring instead to hold on to their prejudice, I will try to remember that it’s their problem not mine .
I sometimes wish that depression could be renamed. We don’t confuse cancer, multiple sclerosis or diabetes with the ups and downs of day to day life. I don’t wish to sound glib, but how often do we hear someone say that the weather is depressing, or that they are feeling depressed by the recent poor performance of their favourite sports team, or because a much-anticipated event has been cancelled?
Depression, the mental illness, is far more than feeling fed up. Treatment involves more than positive thinking. Ordinarily I bounce around, I smile a lot, I’m motivated, driven and packed full of positivity. Depression isn’t a personality trait or a choice. It’s an illness and anyone can be affected.
It seems we can’t win when it comes to stigma. Either depression is dismissed or those living with it and other mental illness are feared, even rejected. Neither scenario benefits people living with these distressing and life-altering conditions. Depression can be terribly isolating. That isolation is only exacerbated by stigma.
Like many illnesses, depression is individual, just as we, although all human, are individuals. There are different types of depression with symptoms in common, but experiences of the condition will vary from person to person.
As Aretha sang … Respect, just a little bit … R-E-S-P-E-C-T … find out what it means to me. Whether or not you’ve experienced depression, or other mental illness; with an internet connection it’s easy to find out more. There’s a wealth of great information available from mental health charities, health organisations and more. Many blogs offer personal testimony straight from the horse’s mouth.
I don’t claim to be a poet, and rap is a long way out of my comfort zone, but when the words of this ditty began to float into my mind, I pictured them being rapped by a strong and cool character, intent on driving the message home.
Quit with your repression of my depression
I’m not afraid to shout, tell you to cut it out.
I can say it aloud, I can be proud
There is no shame, there is no blame.
I get depressed, a weight crushes my chest
This is no lark, this is truly dark
Try as I might, I can’t see any light
This illness is rife and it can threaten life.
It’s no fun, this loaded gun
Its aim is true, but at me not you!
Stigma persists, but it’s time to desist
Get real, understand how I feel
Please keep prejudice in check and show me some respect.