Every day, we see things that remind us of how fragile we all are; we see roadside headstones, nursing homes, cancer treatment centres, and hospitals. When we see these things, we often think of those affected, and perhaps about how difficult it might be for them, and if there is a way we can help (dropping some money in a collection box the next time you see one, volunteering at a nursing home, etc). We are living in a time of open and honest discussion about medical affairs, where there are any number of campaigns advising people to check for lumps, bumps, and rashes, to help early diagnosis of cancers, infections, and chronic problems. Even with all this, I would rather admit to almost anything rather than tell people that I have suffered from ill health. Why? Because they are problems that you can’t see – they don’t take the form of a broken leg, a sprained wrist, or a swollen gland – even though they are every bit as debilitating.
Like so many people in Ireland, I have experienced mental health problems – namely, depression. I have also become adept at hiding this fact from many of those around me because, despite living in an ostensibly modern society, I am keenly aware of the fact that “mental health” and “depression” are dirty words; we don’t speak about them, we don’t acknowledge them, and we certainly don’t tell people that we are experiencing them. Mental health is the last bastion of the taboo in Ireland – spoken about only in hushed tones, lied about to friends, family, and co-workers, and denied to the very last, even if it costs people their lives.
It is almost certain that, in your group of friends, at least one person has dealt with a mental health issue, even if you don’t know about it. That’s because mental health issues, unlike people, don’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you have the most loving and supportive family in the world, or if you were a lonely child; it doesn’t matter if you wanted for nothing, or scrimped and saved for everything; it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, or how old you are.
Depression hits like a hammer. It can come on suddenly, with little or no warning, and once it has arrived, it digs in roots that make it harder to remove. Depression is more than just feeling a little sad; it’s like feeling that you’ll never be happy again, or that you’ll never feel anything but this again. It’s crippling and debilitating. It makes it difficult to perform the simplest of tasks; it’s difficult to eat, sleep, wash, or care about anything at all. More than this, it wreaks havoc on your system, causing headaches, migraine, stomach irritations, digestive problems, changes in appetite, weakness, extreme tiredness, insomnia, etc., but then, what illness doesn’t? Like any illness, you can receive treatment to make yourself better, in the form of medicine and/or therapy. Unlike any illness, however, you are unlikely to receive the support and sympathy of many of your peers. This is because depression, unlike any other illness, is somehow “your fault”.
I’m not sure that it’s possible to completely describe what depression feels like in words, so I’m not certain that anyone who has never suffered from it will fully appreciate how truly awful it can be. Of course, the same could be said of a broken leg – after all, those lucky enough to have never broken a bone are unlikely to know what that pain feels like, what it is like to hear and feel the snap of the bone, what it is like to struggle to do things properly until you’re recovered – but when you break your leg, people look after you. They open doors, they help you eat, dress, shower, and get around. They make accommodations for you, and help you through your recovery. They are patient and understanding when it takes you longer to perform simple tasks. And regardless of what you were doing when you broke your leg, no one ever tells you to “snap out of it”, or tells you that it’s your fault.
Mental health issues are just like any other health problem you may be having. Just like an asthmatic may take inhalers, or a diabetic may take insulin, people with a mental health problem may take medication, because each condition can be debilitating and even fatal if left untreated. Similarly, once controlled, people with asthma, diabetes, depression, or any similar illness can live full, happy, and healthy lives that are mostly unaffected by their condition.
We need to stop thinking of mental illness as separate and distinct to non-mental or physical illnesses. There is no gulf to cross, no barrier to break down – illness is illness, whether it takes the form of something physical, or something mental. To take medicine for a mental health problem is no different than taking insulin, and to need to take a day or two to recover from a depressive episode is no different than needing a day or two to recover from the ‘flu.
I am a young woman who has dealt with mental illness. I also have a successful career, a healthy social life, a number of hobbies, a BSc, and I’m studying toward a Masters degree. Mental illness is not a life sentence. It’s not something to be ashamed of. And it’s about time that we stopped treating it that way.
(10/09/12 – Edit to remove now-broken video link, post contained embedded video of a mental health awareness campaign run by Amnesty International Ireland. The video can still be seen here.)
January 31, 2011 at 3:15 pm
Great article, you’re absolutely right.
Most people would be shocked if they found out how common depression is; from the borderline up to the clinical, so many are and have been suffering.
Yet most are still put off discussing it, as if it somehow instantly qualifies you as completely mad and they’d rather pretend it’s nothing – somewhat surprisingly, I’ve seen this a lot from older generations, even if they’ve suffered themselves. Certainly a product of the culture at the time, which hopefully we have changed and will continue to with the help of groups like Mind etc.
February 2, 2011 at 12:29 pm
Hey there. I have written about my own experiences with depression (http://alexdonald.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/david-foster-wallace/) and like you I believe it is nothing to be ashamed of in the same way most people aren’t ashamed of physical illness. Well done for speaking out about it and I hope it encourages more to do the same.
August 14, 2011 at 10:20 pm
I am a bit late to this, and was planning to comment on the ‘Time to institutionalize..’ thread, but was too late.
These posts were poignantly written, and such a reminder is indeed helpful. My only experience of this is from 25 years ago (back in India),a schoolteacher who most probably had a mental problem and was treated quite badly by people around her, mainly because they had no comprehension of her behaviour, to the extent she was ostracized, lost her job, and had great difficulty finding a place to rent and live. I guess if people are not educated on this subject, a default reaction of other’ing and some fear sets in. I I can see how PZ’s take (and even Jen Mcreight’s) perpetuates the violence myth. Thanks for writing up on this. Once again, I like your writing style.. how politely and rationally you try to get the message across.
October 10, 2012 at 5:07 pm
Thank you. As I read this, I sit here after more than a week of depression that feels worse than it’s ever been (but doesn’t it always?) as my professors pile on homework and editors wonder with increasing frustration where my work is. I didn’t break my leg, and I don’t have the flu, and I don’t have a doctor’s note that says “Taylor didn’t do his homework because he felt like the world might end all weekend,” and if I did I’d probably be told to suck it up. I live in the U.S., and it’s a little bit easier here. I talked to some of my friends about it, and I’m lucky that they all responded with support. But it feels like any depression short of standing at the edge of a tall building is unacceptable as a reason to be moving at a slow crawl. If your life isn’t in immediate – and I mean gun to the head, knife to the wrists immediate – danger, you get no help from non-peers. How many more could we save if you could get the help you needed without the imminent threat of self-harm? How many are too far gone when they reach that point?