Talking about mental illness openly is an important step towards ridding humanity of a stigma that’s breathtaking in its ignorance and dangerous in its effect. But something more needs to happen.
The mental illness umbrella has a broad reach and the disorders that fall beneath it are as diverse as the people affected by them. Some disorders, such as anxiety and depression, lie on a spectrum of normal human behavior and it’s likely that most of us, if not all of us, have teetered somewhere within its reach.
The depth and breadth of the mental illness tag means that an illness such as depression, which is not dangerous to anyone but the sufferer, is being bundled with disorders that are. This continues to feed a stigma that pathologises not only the illness, but also the person. It has implications for all of us.
A formal diagnosis of clinical depression requires the presence of a cluster of symptoms over an extended period. The symptoms are characteristic of normal human experience – sadness, hopelessness, lack of vitality, lack of engagement, disordered sleeping and eating patterns. Each is a normal and valid human response though sometimes, the duration and intensity can become too much and this is when a diagnosis of clinical depression may follow.
I’ve never had clinical depression, but I’ve experienced sadness so deep and engulfing it stole me for a while. I can still remember the ache. I’ve felt desperately hopeless at times and on others frighteningly disengaged. I don’t know how it was that I found my way through. I just did. I also know, with every cell in my body that it could just as easily have gone the other way.
Depression is a deficiency in chemistry, not character. It can happen to anyone. Though it is true that some personality traits make people vulnerable to depression, those same traits also make those people warm, successful, wise, funny, kind, capable and strong. The strength needed to carry on each day with a mental illness is immense.
There is absolutely no evidence – none – that depression causes people to be dangerous or harmful. It’s true that many who have behaved anti-socially have depression, but they also have skin, parents, possibly a mortgage, a job, children. It’s a numbers game and the number of people who suffer from depression is so high, and its reach to exceptionally wide, that people with depression are going to be represented on some level in vile, criminal acts. Doctors and teachers will also be represented. So will diabetics, mothers and taxi drivers. That depression is sometimes represented in the profile of the anti-social does not mean it’s the cause and to suggest otherwise is spectacularly misinformed.
The need to understand and make sense of the world around us is something that has lead humanity to greatness on many fronts. It is our curiosity and our capacity to extend ourselves to satisfy that curiosity that progresses our relationships, society and humanity. It can also be our downfall.
Some things can’t be explained. For all of our collected wisdom, empathy and intelligence, some things just don’t make sense, and they never will. The drive for closure and for understanding means that society has a tendency to reach for anything to fill the knowledge gap. The easiest ‘anything’ will be that which we understand the least. When it comes to unfathomable human behavior, it’s often whatever mental illness diagnosis is within reach. This not only maintains the stigma, it flourishes it.
Talking about mental illness is important, but in order to destigmatise it, we need to demystify it. Depression can be understood as another adaptive process – a normal response to an often abnormal situation. We all have needs we cannot give up – the need for connection, appreciation and belonging are a few. If the need is not met, attempts will be made to let it go, ignore it or have it met elsewhere. If the need remains important, and the environment unsupportive, the need will be ignored but it will never disappear. The best way to ignore something is to push it well out of the way – to, quite literally, depress it.
The more we stigmatise depression, the more we inadvertently encourage this response. We stop talking. We stop normalising. We stop responding. Isolation, shame and disconnection thrive. The more we grab onto depression to explain the inexplicable, the more we encourage people to ‘depress’ and to keep quiet about their own struggles. The very thing we are fighting, we will force.
As long as we view depression as a maladaptive response, rather than embrace it as existing on the spectrum of a normal one, people will continue to depress. It’s no wonder then that depression is on the rise. We can only speculate as to how different the statistics would be if we were a humanity that embraced emotional vulnerability, rather than pathologised it. The capacity is there, just waiting on the will.
When we accept depression for what it is – a normal part of being human, perhaps then the stigma will start to loosen.
This article appeared on The Huffington Post UK on 1 April 2015.