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October, 09, 2013

The Stigma of Depression


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I’m fully aware that I’m a very awful person to be with. I find it difficult to meet people’s eyes; I find it very difficult to connect to people. I just want to be alone, frankly. I’m just praying that it’ll pass because it’s fucking irritating and I hate myself for it. I’ve never thought that I hear voices but I do have a voice telling me I’m a complete cunt all the time in my head.”

My intense obsession with popular culture drives me practically to think in quotes, so I decided to start with one. Those are the words of Stephen Fry, taken from a short film he made with the Open University in 2011. Mr Fry, a man for whom I am certainly not alone in having immense respect and admiration, suffers from a form of bipolar. I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining who Stephen Fry is, but you should know by now that whatever subject he is discussing must be incredibly serious if he, Stephen Fry, even mentions prayer. ‘What I have’ is quite different to ‘what he has’, but they both fall under the massive psychiatric umbrella of Depression, and when I heard those above words for the first time I was amazed that somebody was able to reflect the way I sometimes feel to the letter.


Photo by Lloyd Morgan

It’s been nearly six months since I was reading the monstrous phrase Major Depressive Disorder off my own GP’s computer screen, and around three years since I started inexplicably feeling like the world’s biggest waste of space. These facts about myself are quite difficult for me to publicise, and I know – having been on the other side of this dialogue twice in my life – it is extremely awkward for you, if you know me, to read. But, please, in the interest of the sanity of the millions of others with similar conditions who populate this country and beyond, get over it.

When I told a counsellor about my depression, she looked at me with a refreshingly bored expression and said, “Well, my first diagnosis is that you’re a Scottish male”. What she meant by that, sadly, is that mental health is viewed in our society as an alienating weakness, so much so that people tend never to talk about it. This is especially true with men, as the paradigms of masculinity make it very hard to show yourself for who you really are if you do not meet the artificial quotas of sexuality, appearance and attitude. This is where my least-favourite word comes into play: Stigma. It’s because of the stigma around mental health that I see my depression as unworthy of discussion, a symbol of my social ineptitude, something that must be kept secret, and the biggest part of my general identity as a whole. Which it shouldn’t be.


Photo by Don Hankins

The stigma around mental health means that I feel embarrassed telling my closest friends about how I operate mentally. And that shouldn’t be the case at all. The sensation of wanting yourself dead is an incredibly hard one to come to terms with and it’s an extraordinary phenomenon I think, for a human brain to decide that death is the best way to proceed. While I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) speak for others who have similar issues, I can only assume that depression makes others – not just me – feel suddenly and very deeply worthless, and then guilty for that, and then frustrated with the cycle; those switches between rational and irrational thought; between ‘normal’ happiness and intense fits of anger and anxiety. I’m writing this in a good mood, but maybe, when my Mr Hyde reappears, I’ll delete this file, disgusted with the thought that I nearly put my feelings online. Ugh, feelings. That’s Stigma.


Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

There wasn’t enough discussion about depression at my school. It’s something that I viewed back then as a relief because of the blush-cheeked sensitivity of the whole topic. I’d rather have spent that PSE hour shoving a condom on a cucumber and forcibly chatting with my peers about periods. But it’s something that I view now as staggeringly irresponsible. Thankfully however, my current university and many others around the UK have massive support available for those worried about mental health. The staff and fellow students who constitute these services make up a vital – and, as I’m all too aware, potentially life-saving – pillar of university life. Talking about mental health is every bit as important as the physical kinds of health that we’re completely open about. Telling people about what I go through has helped me far more than taking pills, and a thousand times more than drinking. All I want to achieve with writing this is that hopefully one other person, who might not even know me and who suffers from depression, reads it and talks to somebody, and seeks help. Because internalising my own thoughts has ruined some of what should have been the most carefree years of my life. But seeking help –which was incredibly easy after taking the first step in the right direction – has really changed things.


Photo by Nicola Jones

And when I read down the huge list of admirable public figures, living and past that suffered from similar issues, it inspires me no end. World-class authors, scientists, musicians, comedians, activists and powerful leaders of government all contribute to the list of people who have stuck with it, lived resiliently and changed the world. Their incredible success makes it ever clearer that suffering from bipolar, or chronic anxiety, or MDD, or anything else doesn’t actually mean there’s something wrong with you. Is it really abnormal, freakish or alienating if more than 10% of the population feels that way?


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