The Stigma of Depression



I was 19, and just an average student doing an average degree, working part time and living the lifestyle many people my age did.

Depression altered everything.

It all seems like a horrible dream now but there are still things I remember distinctly. I remember feeling some sort of terrible sadness that wanted nothing, but took everything, and nothing would quell it. I became very isolated and alone, and my attempts to seek out chances to socialize only made it worse.

I remember realizing it wasn’t just a temporary “down in the dumps” feeling when I started waking up several times a night.  I’d wake, and feel normal for about a second or two before “it” – the heaviness, the nothingness, the sadness – all came flooding back, like a wave. In the pitch dark this was terrifying.

I finally went to a walk-in medical center, purely out of desperation. I had hit a point where I just wanted a definitive answer about how I was feeling and, moreover, I relished an opportunity to distract myself by something I “had to” do, even if I felt incredibly anxious and uncomfortable doing it. Going and sitting in a walk in centre with an actual purpose and end goal was far better than sitting in my room agonisingly waiting for the day to end. The doctor asked me to describe how I was feeling and I broke down in the middle of the office.  The doctor herself was understanding and patient, but I could tell there was little she could do directly. She asked me lots of questions and many of them seemed to hit home. She asked me things like if I thought about taking my own life.  I struggled to answer, as I couldn’t truthfully say no.

She told me I was depressed, and prescribed me antidepressants to help.  I think having a diagnosis of a real mental health disorder was both good and bad. It made me feel like maybe it wasn’t my fault and was something I couldn’t control. But at the same time I didn’t want to tell people – not because I thought they wouldn’t be understanding, but because I felt like I would be undermining my legitimacy as a rational human being. Maybe if people knew I had depression, they would see me as irrational, a burden, or just different. Kind of like the very old relative that people still love but don’t stay around for too long.

After the doctor’s appointment, when I went to pick up the antidepressants, I noticed the awkward smile I received from the girl at the pharmacy. That was too much – I couldn’t bring myself to take the plunge into the official realm of “depression.” I didn’t want to be labelled. I didn’t want anyone to look at me like that again; I wasn’t used to pity and I couldn’t bear the thought at being kept at arms length by everyone.

Needless to say, the stigma of mental illness was a powerful spectre in my mind.

About two weeks later, I told my parents, and at first they were really supportive. But they were only so accommodating for so long. I’ll never forget the day my dad told me that I wasn’t poor, wasn’t unemployed and wasn’t being physically abused so “what [did I have] to be depressed about?” (Word for word, he actually used that old chestnut).

I wish depression was as simple as that.  I wish that employment and safety automatically added up to a “cure”. But mental illness doesn’t work like that.  It takes indiscriminately and without reason.

My father’s reaction paired with the stigma of the “depression” label told me everything I needed to know about how the world feels about mental illness.  You’re either a sub-human object of pity, or, in short, a whiner.

In many ways I am lucky: I came out of my depression without drugs (although for those who find them helpful, there is nothing wrong with them), and in fact gained a newfound sense of how complex and important every person in this world is. However, because of that I have a hard time seeing all the hurt in the world and not speaking my mind.  I want to help; I want every person to be treated as just that – a person

I know there is stigma, and misunderstanding about depression everywhere. And I want everyone to know this:  there is nothing wrong with you.  And no one – no one! – has any right to say otherwise.

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