March 24, 2015

Let’s talk about stigma. Matt's blog

It is bad enough being ill, but when the illness you have is stigmatised it is especially hard. And so it is depression.

Stigma is particularly cruel for people who experience depression because stigma affects thoughts, and depression is, in part, an illness of thoughts.

A lot of people like to believe we live in an age and a society where we are all very grown-up and mature about mental health. The sad truth is that mental health stigma still exists.

I know this because I have experienced it.

I felt very strongly that I couldn’t talk to some people about my depression

When I was 24 I became so seriously ill with depression and anxiety that I wanted to take my own life.  I couldn’t take this new invisible pain I was feeling. I saw no way out. This was the new reality.

I obviously didn’t take my own life, and I am thankful I didn’t. One of the reasons I am still here is because I had people I could talk to. But I felt very strongly that I couldn’t talk to some people about it. There were people that, when I hinted at my ill state, laughed nervously or advised I get drunk to forget about it. Some people distanced themselves.

This was in 1999.

"Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression"

Depression is something that merely happens to a person

Fortunately we are now in 2015 and the atmosphere is better. But stigma is still there. We simply still don’t talk about mental health in the same we talk about physical health. We just don’t.

I am especially aware of this at the moment because I have been talking a lot about my experience of depression recently - I've just published my book Reasons to Stay Alive, which is about my experience of mental health problems.

One question that comes up a lot, one that came up recently, when I was interviewed and asked with an innocent smile, is the ‘do you find it hard, talking about it?’ Or I just get the comment ‘you are so brave’.

When people say these things they are being kind, and well meaning, but the assumption of shame is interesting.

I mean, if someone, is talking about their asthma or broken leg or skin cancer, they might say they are brave in dealing with the illness or affliction but not with talking about it. Depression is an illness, not a crime, not a secret lover, not a taste for Nazi memorabilia. It is not something to confess. I have no idea why people should act like there is shame around people who experience depression, when depression is never a person. It is merely something that happens to a person.

Where there is fear there is stigma and prejudice

Yes, depression can be triggered by external circumstances. But so can the flu.

The trouble is, of course, there is still a lot we don’t know about depression. The debate about what causes it, and how it should be treated, is still going on. And where there is mystery there is fear and where there is fear there is stigma and prejudice.

But the way we confront that stigma, and the way we solve the mystery, is by talking. If someone feels we should be ashamed to talk, then that is their ignorance. We should never let the ignorant dictate the climate.

There is nothing to be ashamed about

We should talk and listen about depression, because words help us understand. And in the process they help us externalise this agonisingly internal illness. With one in four of us experiencing mental illness (and maybe more, as stigma may be shrinking the figures) we need to recognise mental illness the way we recognise physical illness. As a part of life. And just as there is no such thing as full physical health, there is no such thing as 100% mental wellness. We are all on a scale. These are incredibly common human experiences. There is nothing to be ashamed about. There is everything to be open about.

Depression isn’t a choice, but stigma and ignorance are. I choose neither.

Let’s not be patronised with all this talk of bravery.

Let’s talk.

It’s 2015.

It really is time to change.

Matt is the author of Reasons to Stay Alive.

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