Apart from being a cruel, pain in the butt, depression is a real and horrible illness that affects up to 1 in 4 of the population at some time in their lives. Depression is the ugly sister of illness; the one hidden away and not discussed. The one that seems to make people feel ashamed.
I live with depression as part of my bipolar illness and I am no longer ashamed of this wretched condition. I have friends who have had, or currently have, depression. We feel confident to talk about it and oh, boy, does that feel good! There is no need for us to be ashamed of it, or be afraid to discuss it. But, in general, in the 21st Century, people still are.
Why are People Ashamed?
Depression has plagued humans since the beginning of time and it was never viewed it in a sympathetic light throughout any of the ages. Even in the second millennium B.C. it was deemed that mental illness was the result of being possessed by demonic creatures. This school of thought continued for centuries and by the 16th Century, European countries were hunting out and executing people suffering from depression, or ‘melancholia’ as it was also known. Add the horror stories of lunatic asylums and lobotomies to this, and I suspect we have found the root of the shame that has become embedded in the human psyche. I think this shame is etched into our blueprint and we have never completely forgotten how inhumanely people treated depression and other mental illness sufferers.
Rolling the clock forward to the 21st Century again; attitudes are starting to change thankfully. This progress is mostly down to the relentless awareness campaigning and fundraising organised by the mental health charities. Here in the UK, Mind, SANE, Rethink Mental Illness, Time to Change and Depression Alliance are major players. Some of our well-known celebrities have also played a significant part in raising awareness, by talking about their experiences. Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax are probably the two most famous for this, but there are many others with limited media attention working away in the background acting as fantastic ambassadors. Even our Royal Family are getting involved now. Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have recently launched the ‘Heads Together Campaign’ that aims to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Good luck with that, guys. Oops, I mean Your Royal Highnesses!
Can We Really End Stigma?
Instead of all the awareness campaigns focussing on ‘ending stigma’, perhaps we should be taking a dose of realism and say ‘combatting stigma’ or ‘tackling stigma’ instead. Let’s face it; 21 centuries and counting of diabolical treatment have left deep-rooted scars. The stigma is not going to end as the result of a few decades of awareness campaigning, no matter how good those campaigns are. I hope the over-the-top media attention directed at the Royal Highnesses will do us a huge favour and put the spotlight firmly on their Heads Together Campaign. But even with this and the relentless work of charities and celebrities, the stark truth is, we probably have a few more decades of hard work to go before the stigma will come to an end.
Wait – Medical Science Can Help End Stigma!
There is one thing that could end stigma for once and for all, and that is medical science. Us who suffer from this wretched illness know that it is so much more than a mental illness. We know it is as much physical as it is mental and it has real, not imagined, debilitating symptoms. Sadly, that doesn’t stop misguided people from wrongly thinking that depression is ‘all in your head;’ as if it is something that we can take control of to change our thoughts or behaviours and make it go away. There have been several neuroscience breakthroughs over the last few years and so much more has been learned about the mechanism of depression. It was once thought to be a chemical imbalance, but now the scientists know gene expression, DNA, cell function, neurotransmitters, inflammation and possibly gut bacteria play a substantial part in causing the illness.
Challenging all the misguided false beliefs has helped me tremendously. I am not ashamed or afraid to discuss depression with anyone now. Those who are misguided present me with an opportunity to explain about the illness and how very real it is – and not just ‘in my head’. I can talk with candour about the new medical discoveries and the likelihood of improved and more appropriate treatment on the horizon. I can talk about the need for a name change. Let’s be honest, ‘depression’ is a really dumb name for such a debilitating illness – but that is another story altogether! I can feel satisfied that because I have managed to help one more person understand the illness, they might, in turn, help others understand.
Die, Damn You!
The stigma will run its course and die, eventually. I expect a combination of charity and celebrity awareness campaigns, along with major developments in medical science and more appropriate medical treatment, will finally tip the scales and stamp all over it. I hope to be part of the movement that waves farewell to it, by getting involved in as many different events as possible to talk, share, educate and help others.
Are you able to talk about your experiences in the comments? Perhaps you are already involved in initiatives in your local area? Have you had a conversation with someone about depression and you listening has been a great help to them? I would love to hear about your experiences!
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