“Depression is an illness, not a weakness nor a trait”.
This is probably one of the most powerful phrases about mental illness that I have heard. For anyone that thinks depression is a temporary emotion, just like happiness or anger, think again. Depression is an illness and nothing to be ashamed of.
I admit that growing up, I did not fully appreciate what it was like to be depressed. I assumed that it was said when you were extremely sad, because I think that is the impression given from the media and everyone around us. What I didn’t appreciate, is the feeling of emptiness. It is great that there are a lot more campaigns around mental illness these days, but I would still say that more should be done to raise awareness from an early age.
I can be a lot more open about my mental health now, however, I think to some degree there is still an element of shame. Just recently, I was asked which medication I took. Knowing that the individual most likely wouldn't know the name of the medication, I said Sertraline, rather than saying I took anti-depressants. It was nothing to do with not trusting the individual or wanting them to know, but more a natural response due to the perceived stigma attached with mental illness in society. By being more open, I find that it actually initiates a conversation and there are definitely people out there willing to talk and offer support, which is really encouraging. I have learned from my mistake!
Depression is not the only poorly understood mental illness. Another illness I suffer from is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which too has a lot of misconceptions. Living with OCD is like living with a monster inside your brain, that controls the way you think. Similarly, to depression, OCD is not a trait. Many people use ‘OCD’ as an adjective, which can be degrading for someone living with the disorder.
I have had first-hand experience of someone using ‘OCD’ wrongly in a sentence, even with them knowing that I myself had OCD! “That’s my OCD” should NOT be used in a sentence regarding a personal preference, such as always using a ruler to draw lines. This is an example of a stereotypical assumption that OCD is a trait whereby you like things to be neat. I like things to be neat and tidy, that is my personality. I would be neat and tidy whether I had OCD or not – this is an example of a misconception that needs to be realigned.
Society on a whole see the compulsive rituals of hand washing, cleaning and checking and think that that is all there is to it. What people don't see or understand, is the obsessions that cause the overwhelming anxiety. One symptom I previously experienced was intrusive thoughts whilst driving. I would have powerful thoughts and images of myself swerving my car into pedestrians or oncoming traffic, forcing me to talk to myself, tap on the steering wheel and check the mirror multiple times, in an attempt to get rid of the accompanying feelings of anxiety. I would find myself crying at the wheel and becoming increasingly distressed, due to the feeling of being out of control and swallowed up by the OCD inside of me.
OCD I guess could be likened to an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, visible to all are the compulsions such as; tapping, counting and washing. Under the surface of the water, not visible but still a big part of the structure, are the obsessions such as; fear of contamination, fear of causing harm to others and the feeling that something bad is going to happen. It is very easy to focus on things that are superficial and visible, but it is what is anchoring these behaviours, that are the main problem – and this is what the general public should be educated about.
I hope this blog can provide a useful insight into living with mental illnesses such as depression and OCD. Most importantly, I hope it can be shared with others with the purpose of eliminating stigma and educating society, so those with mental illness don’t have to live in shame.