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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.

Depression

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.

Depression

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.

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.

Stigma

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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  1. Rob Mann

    I have had bouts of depression, mainly as a result of a brain tumour which went undetected for a number of years, but also through a traumatic childhood and the bad memories that won’t go away. I am now a fledgling writer and would like to share a poem I wrote on the subject, which some people say captures their feelings, as well as their hopes for the future.

    BLACK DOG

    Frightening in your stealth, you approach like the darkest cloud.
    They cannot see you, but those close know you are with me.
    Your visits provoke their wariness, afraid they may tip the scales.
    Some are aware of your deceptive nature; the ignorant have no perception of your power.
    Others turn away in accusation. As if I would ever invite you.

    No discrimination or sense of timing; no discernment or sensitivity.
    You impose your will with malicious glee; my own self recoiling in your shadow.
    Darkness cast over me like a heavy blanket; the dense shroud enveloping.
    Despair surrounds like quicksand pulling at my thoughts.
    Retreating down your path. As if I could ever fight you.

    Your weight is paralysing, debilitating the strongest minds and bodies.
    Shapeless, and yet I have known you before; saddened that I did not see you coming.
    Overpowered by the guilt you inflict, my strength sapped and hope flagging.
    Communication closing down. Those outside see only the facade and not the pain.
    Must make people see your face. As if I could ever light you.

    Fear transmitted through quickness to temper; no patience or forgiveness.
    Shrinking the circle of those willing to be involved with this monster.
    When will this end? All this thought with no reason.
    But wait, you have been before, which means you left me.
    It is you that is wrong. As if I could ever right you.

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  2. Emma Grannell

    Totally agree! depression is becoming a much larger part of life in the 21st century. Schools need to teach about it, especially where i am from there is no one at school you can talk to comfortably, teachers aren’t trained to deal with this kind of illness. I myself have had depression and doctors are really great but i refused to go on tablets as i have a fear to become addicted and and very paranoid in case of any other effects i get from taking these pills. Wish everywhere had someone to talk to and places to go which were open to people struggling from anxiety and depression.

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  3. Vikki Greenlow

    My husband was diagnosed with Bipolar affective disorder 4 years ago this year. It is possible that he had been suffering since his teenage years but at that time they just put it down to being a problem child. I believe if he was a teen of today they would have picked up on it sooner and he could have avoided struggling all those years. I am thankful to say mind, that since his diagnosis he has been much better however it does worry me if he should ever relapse what support he would get. He has lost his social grouping and doesn’t have alot of friends now but this he says may be a good thing for him as they were not healthy friends.

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  4. Katie Wyatt

    My sister suffers from depression but is not open about it. She never talks about it so doesn’t seek out help. Our family have tried to support her in any way we can but without her co-operation it is difficult. She is not open about it probably due to the stigma attached. This article is interesting in that someone has spoke out and talked about the difficulties they face having depression. As pointed out even those in professional positions still attach stigma. The right support is needed when someone is suffering with a mental health issue. I feel like there isn’t enough information for people with depression. There are many articles that encourage those to speak out but no information of what to do. Some people might not be aware there are many different treatments that could help them.

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  5. David Maguire

    The stigma around mental health in general is something that needs to change. It has been known for too long as a personal flaw, when it is not.

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  6. Scott Simmons

    I myself suffer from depression and anxiety. I noticed a change in how people perceived me, almost as if they were afraid to talk to me. I am still the same person I have always been, I just happen to have an issue that wasn’t there before. articles such as this are a good thing, they allow people to see the person behind the illness and make them realise that depression and anxiety are real and that any person can become a victim of its grasp at anytime.

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  7. Darren Jordan

    It is really a shame how we are in an ever advancing society and yet we as a whole, are so judge mental and hypocritical. It is 96 year since equality came to Britain in 1918 but yet, nothing has barely changed. Yes there are a few obvious points, but when it comes to mental health , nothing is getting resolved.

    For example; 1 in 6 people have mental health problems. In a room of 40 people that is equivalent to 1 in 3 children and 1 in 4 adults. This has boomed by 400% since the noughties. Something radical has to change otherwise this problem is only going to get worse and worse.

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  8. Gina Nelson

    This article is possibly the most accurate description of depression and society’s issues with it, that I have ever encountered. I feel depressed the majority of the time, but because of my fear of disappointing my parents, my family, my peers and even my more optimistic self, I avoid going to the doctor’s about it. I have tried talking to a counsellor about it, but I can tell from the eternally bored look in their eyes and the vague noises of confirmation that they would much prefer to be somewhere else. Understandable considering it’s just a job, but not helpful for those who genuinely need the help. In fact, I would go so far as to say the idea of depressing/boring these people has worsened my situation. So I tried my family, but it’s not exactly a dinnertime topic so it got pushed out of the conversation onto happier topics that I could not relate to. Depression has alienated me from my family because ‘it’s a normal thing for people your age, just get over it’.

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    • julia

      Hi Gina. I was diagnosed in my second year at university, and I felt the same as you when it came to the doctor and counsellors. A bored look as if to say not another student who’s too sensitive and they really don’t pay me enough to do this crappy job. I was asked questions that sounded like they were read aloud from a manual, I was given information papers that they had obviously been printing off and giving to anyone coming in. I felt no better after the consultations than before. Plus I knew that I only had six sessions allocated. As if that was considered a solution. I felt very much isolated from everyone and a burden to all. I thought that it was I who needed to man up so to speak and to get on with things. The next five years or so nothing much changed, and I got worse, and eventually broke down as they say. I got sent back to my parents, spent a lot of the time sleeping. It took a break down, something physically visible for people to pay attention or so it felt, though I would have gladly avoided getting worse. I then got introduced to a psychotherapist, who had come across many cases, who was in the job because she had had similar experiences and wanted to help others.she knew where you were coming from, never belittled you and never looked like she was longing for 5pm. She answered questions I had instead of only asking them. This made all the difference to me. Keep looking for support, try other sources of help, check online, check charities and their advice, keep looking. You’re not alone, you’re not making a fuss out of nothing and you deserve to get out of it. And you will! Good luck and thanks for posting :-)

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  9. John Wadeson

    The Article is well written and is a great insight to depression. Unfortunatly depression is a ever growing issue with people around us. As someone who suffers from mental health difficulties myself including depression and psychosis it is a great disappointment to hear that the government are trying to close some mental health services in my local community to build one larger one, which person i dont think is a good idea.
    Depression is hard illness for people to understand as people can say they are depressed over very little things which really they are jsut sad about.
    Depression affects people in all different ways and it is important that you receive support from your friends families andhealth professionals to help greater your chances of either recovery or getting yourself back on track with life.
    Depression is not a illness for people to laugh about its not a physical illness so quite often people can think your maing it up. But when a person is really depressed you dont know what is going on theat persons mind.

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  10. Caoimhe Mc Gonagle

    Great insight and very inspirational , hopefully this will help in changing the negative views that society holds on issues like this.

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  11. Cassie Beadel

    This article is well written, depression is unfortunately a big issue with actually a lot of people and there are so many things that can start it off or bring a person down. It is so hard to get people to see what you are feelings and the reasons to it, we are our own emotions and unfortunaly it is only ourselves that can sort these emotions out. We can speak to people and have guidance but that can only do so much and get you so far.
    People are affected in so many different ways and all you can do is support the person with depression make sure that they always have someone to talk to or having that someone to talk to yourself if you have depression… it’s a lot easier than feeling like you have no one.

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  12. Charlie Reid

    It’s not your fault, it’s society’s.

    Everyone has their problems and it’s a shame that some are offered help while some are not.

    The key to this issue is to raise awareness and eradicate the social stigma that surrounds mental health.

    Stay strong.

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  13. shen

    to charlie, my boyfriend has been diagnosed with depression and before he was, i used to think he was faking it. i used to think he was being weak and acting pitiful just for attention; i wanted him to just snap out of it and face his problems in life. i made him feel guilty about being depressed by telling him he has been dealt the perfect hand in life (white, middle class, male) and he has no right to sit and mope in his sadness while there are other people going through much worse. but i was wrong about all of that, his depression could not be helped. it’s easy to think someone’s being annoying and faking it (and it really gets on my nerves). but how can we ever be sure? we can’t. hence what i think, we shouldn’t focus on who’s genuinely depressed or not. people who are faking depression must have something wrong with them anyway in order for them to take the step in acting depressed. hence it’s still worth us listening to them and believing them. we don’t lose anything by wrongly believing someone is depressed but can end up hurting someone greatly just by thinking they’re faking it.

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  14. Rebecca Amos

    I understand this completely. The shame and fear of telling people that I was ‘mentally ill’ when I was diagnosed was somewhat greater than how I felt about actually being diagnosed at all. I still can’t talk about it to my best friends, despite it being nearly two years since my diagnosis. The stigma needs to end, and maybe then we wouldn’t feel so terrified of saying “I have a mental illness”.

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  15. Charlie

    I would like to point out that I know this comment may be misinterpreted an that people may not agree with what I have to say but I do not wish to offend anybody. I feel that in todays society many people are claiming to have depression or some other mental health issue. I use the word “claiming” because I do not believe that they are depressed. Anybody can go to the doctors and come out diagnosed with some sort of mental heath issue and personally I feel that the many of those people are just attention seeking. I am not saying that everybody that is diagnosed doesn’t have depression because I know many people who do suffer with it but these people do not go about their day to day lives telling everybody about their problems. In fact if they share at all they do so only with people they know and trust. There is a stigma about mental health but how can we go about changing this when there are so many people, falsely diagnosed, parading around, showing off, and begging for attention and by doing so hiding those, who are truly in need of help, from society’s view? Again I say “falsely diagnosed” because while I do not believe that they are depressed I do think that they may need some sort of help if they feel they need constant attention from those around them and have to lie about or exaggerate their problems in order to gain what they crave. Again I do not wish to offend anybody and I do feel more help must be given to those people who do suffer with this issue but I just feel that people need to recognise when someone is being genuine or not

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  16. laura coombs

    this is very inspirational i feel your pain

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  17. Karl Faux

    Very moving and well written article.. many thanks its helpful

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  18. TonyB

    Firstly let me congratulate you on a lucid and reasoned argument. Far be it from me to assess your “state”, but I still feel it important to put a few points to you. Firstly, I think that you can discount Fry’s allusion to prayer as misuse of English. Nevertheless, he is frank in his opinions and has done a great deal to publicise mental health.
    The real reason for my response is almost a more general one. I cannot comment upon you as I don’t know you and the the Doctor is capable of a more reasoned explanation than I. However what you describe is in many cases surely the “badge” worn by those who have difficulties which are, I suggest, normal. What you feel has been felt by EVERY person at some time or another – maybe for not as long or as deep – and to class everyone the same is dangerous. I’m NOT suggesting the “get over it” approach – the National Arboretum has a corner dedicated to those executed for being shell-shocked – so clearly an individual “treatment” is called for. I just am concerned that old dodderers like me are aware that life throws depression at you from all sides and at all times and for the majority of people you do just “get over it”.
    The Stigma you are concerned with is because there are too many hangers-on to your condition who are not genuine. Nobody – well not many – would classify Bi-Polarism as any different from Deafness if it were not abused as an excuse.
    Sorry if I appear critical – I really am not (of you) and sincerely wish you all the best. I am appreciative of your views and respect your bravery and frankness in “coming out”.

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    • Jonny

      Hi Tony, thanks a lot for your feedback.
      While I agree with you that perhaps the stigma actually does stem from the naming and categorising of mental health issues, I disagree with most of what you’re saying. Firstly, I never even mentioned Fry’s words as being good or bad use of English. I was simply pointing out the fact that he used the phrase “I’m praying that it’ll pass” – significant, I think, because he is a very well known atheist.
      Secondly, your comment that depression is a badge upon normal people is entirely my argument – thinking in a different way does not make a person abnormal. But being labelled – or fearing to be labelled – as depressed makes people feel abnormal.
      Thirdly, although depression is experienced by a huge number of people, it is certainly not the case that it is felt be everyone. This is in reference to both ‘regular low moods’ and the diagnosed psychological state of depression (in which case it affects up to one third of the UK at some point in life). Feeling sad on a bad day is a natural human emotion, felt by everybody. Feeling sad on a very good day is very different.
      Fourthly, given the tragic suicide rates in this country due to mental health issues, I think what you’re implying by saying ‘most people get over it’ is very bold. Many people are helped through SSRIs if their depression is chemical, or through counselling and CBT if it isn’t. Many other’s are not helped at all.
      I’m not sure what you meant by your comment on the classification of bipolar and deafness.
      Again, thanks a lot for commenting. Discussion is vital and I hope you reply. Thanks for your compliments

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      • TonyB

        Jonny

        I think you have misunderstood my comments or, more precisely , writing them on the hoof in 3 or 4 goes does not make for lucidity.

        1) Let’s clarify the Fry remark – For one who is meticulous in his choice of words, it is difficult to imagine that he meant any other than meaning the “hands together -looking up” definition of prayer. However, I query that he doesn’t actually mean “hoping” without reference to a higher being.

        Although you separate points, I’m actually only making one and this is best described by a completely different issue. When someone like Lady Di was killed there was a huge outpouring of grief. The full gamut was expressed almost to the extent of wailing at the wall. Much of this over-exaggerated grief was, in my opinion, false. In the vast majority of cases it was badge-wearing – belonging to a group.
        In the same way, I think that Mental Health is another Lady Di. There is no suggestion that in an indefinable number of cases, problems are genuine and result in clinical definitions. However, at the other end, I would suggest, there are a greater number of people who are suffering no more than cyclical downs rather than ups but it is currently fashionable to explain it as depression. It is the badge that is worn like the financially well -endowed of the USA seeing their “Counselor”. What I am saying is that your case is diluted by these specifics. I am actually arguing that far from people being frightened of being labelled, some actually seem to enjoy it. Perhaps our differences stem from the people with whom we come /have come in contact with.
        You state that a third of people are “depressed” at some stage in their lives (RCP states 20%) but that again serves to lump together the severe and the none-critical. However, depression is a fairly loose definition and whether it is the cause or the symptom you don’t make clear. For example, the suicide rate in farmers is clearly due to stress factors in the main but what causes that stress can vary from the inability to cope with paperwork to potential bankruptcy. In other words, the cause of the suicide is one step removed from the clinical diagnosis. So, for example, would leaving the profession cause less suicides and, if it does, would you still classify the depression as a Mental Health issue?
        My argument about getting over it is statistically correct if you are trying to link depression with, for example, suicides. In 2011, 6000+ suicides in over 15′s were recorded. in 70 years or so when 60 million people died that will be less than half a million or about 1%. If 20% get depressed – eleven and a half million didn’t commit suicide. Of course these are stupid statistics! The fact remains that a tragically high percentage of the severely diagnosed do not recover and the statistics relating to bi-polarism, schizophrenia etc are high. That serves your argument well but depression does not.
        We are clearly at odds over one end of your scale but not, I hasten to add, the other. My example re Bi-Polarism and Deafness was perhaps a bad one (I used it because of my partial deafness) and it would have been better to have used something which is obviously visible like amputation. What I was trying to illustrate was that Mental Health problems should not be stigmatised any more than something which is obvious(but they are!)

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  19. Bryony Shuter

    Brilliant article and really brave to put it out there. I’ve suffered with depression for almost 5 years now and still only just able to talk openly about it. Thank you for a great article!

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  20. Laura Shackleton

    Amazing article, great to see the Stigma of Depression is getting out there and more and more people are becoming aware.

    Lovely seeing this when I work for a Mental Health Charity, thank you for the fab article.

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  21. Linsey

    I lived with a girl who thought we hated her, she was constantly going off at us and punching holes in the wall and the next day acting like none of it happened – even singling me out as a person who verbally attacked her because I said “I had work too”. Turn’s out she had bi-polar, she didn’t tell us because she didn’t want us to treat her different yet we’d have been more understanding rather than just thinking she was a horrible witch.
    We need to break the silence and speak up for everyone.

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  22. Esme

    This is such a brilliantly and bravely written article. Thanks for putting it out there for others to see!

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  23. julia

    I couldn’t agree more to all of above. And thanks for ignoring the M. Hyde and posting anyway. Illnesses are illnesses, mental or not. It’s all the same body and people should indeed get over it. I’m amazed that as a culture we have progressed in so many ways, yet when it comes to mental health issues it seems like we’re still in the days where the world is supposedly flat. The global market offers in excess of 2000 varieties of anti depressants, this didn’t happen overnight, depression has been on the radar of medical professionals for many years. And if they can acknowledge the reality of mental health issues such as depression, why can’t others? What are people scared of? That it’s catching? I often considered posting something but always let Mr Hyde get the better of me, so I’m glad you made it happen.

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  24. Alexandra Smith

    Totally agree Jonny, people need to discuss mental health just as much as physical illness. This is a fantastic article, no doubt if we discussed mental health, lives would improve for many sufferers and perhaps, even lives saved. Once again this is a truly fantastic article!

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