The Stigma of Depression
[Image] A person sitting on the floor, knees up, and head slumped. One hand is holding the side of the person’s head, and the other is sitting across their knees. Behind the person is a dark cloud that is wrapping itself around the person. Two darker spots in the cloud look like eyes, and two mandible-like parts of the cloud are placed over the person’s shoulders
[Caption] Depression turned my world around. It was like a horrible dream.
[Image] The same person, in the same position. The cloud has become bigger, and is enveloping the person a little more.
[Caption] It was a sadness that wanted nothing…
[Image] The cloud is even bigger, and the person looks tiny in the cloud’s centre. The person is more than half-enveloped by the cloud.
[Caption] …but took everything.
[Image] The cloud, now huge, has completely swallowed the person, who is no longer visible.
[Caption] When I realized it wasn’t temporary…When I became isolated, but socialization made it worse…When I would wake up several times a night in a panic…I finally went to a walk-in medical centre, purely out of desperation.
[Image] The person, sitting across a small table from a woman, who is holding a notepad. The dark cloud is behind the person’s chair, still has its mandibles on their shoulders. The person is crying and holding their face in one hand.
[Caption] I broke down when she asked me to describe how I was feeling. She asked me if I thought about taking my own life. I couldn’t truthfully say no.
[Image] A hand holding a piece of paper with the heading “Prescription”. The text underneath the heading is scrawled and illegible.
[Caption] She told me I was depressed, and prescribed me antidepressants. It made me feel like maybe it wasn’t my fault.
[Caption] But I couldn’t face the stigma of mental illness. Despite the terrifying nights, the days tormented by sadness, and my inability to function…
[Image] The same prescription paper, except instead of the scrawled text, it now reads: “Certified crazy. No longer a legitimate human being. Keep at arms length from normal people”.
[Caption] I dreaded the social stigma even more.
[Image] The person, head down, walking away from a man. The man is wearing a sweater and slacks. He wears glasses and is balding. He is facing the back of the person, with his hands in his pockets.
[Caption] I’ll never forget when my dad heard about my diagnosis.
Man: You aren’t poor, you aren’t unemployed, and you weren’t physically abused…So what did you have to be depressed about?
[Caption] My father’s reaction 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 a whiner. I feel lucky for coming out the other side in one piece. But I see stigma everywhere…and I want everyone to know this. There is nothing wrong with you. No one has the right to say otherwise.
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.