Debunking the Stigma of Depression

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We’ve seen so many tragic stories of violence over the past few years that were the result of someone diagnosed with depression or another mental illness. Unfortunately, these events have added to the historic stigma that all people with depression are dangerous or homicidal, to be avoided like the plague. Popular news stations flash the person's picture on an almost twenty-four-hour basis, stripping them down to their bare bones and dissecting every aspect of their lives that has led up to the tragedy.

An important aspect of just about every one of these stories is that the person involved was not receiving treatment for the depression or had not even been diagnosed. These unfortunate situations have added to the growing stigma of danger, danger, danger when we cross paths with such a person—a rather unfortunate circumstance that can lead to yet another tragedy within a few more months, as fear grows within the community and within the country. People suffering with depressive symptoms are treated like lepers, to be avoided at all costs; and, on the flip side, receiving a depression diagnosis is being viewed as a death sentence because of this fear.

The stigma is becoming a sick cycle that we must work to put a stop to. The public fear of people with depression or mental illness adds another log to the stigma fire, developing into the next person who has the potential for a depression diagnosis to not want to seek treatment out of fear of being ousted by the community in which they live, leading yet again to another illness that goes untreated and even undiagnosed.

Families are also involved in this stigma. I’ve seen and witnessed so many families in denial over their child’s diagnosis it sometimes scares even myself, because the patient undergoes a sense of abandonment. The classic parental thought of “not my child” or “not in my family” does no one a bit of good.

The stress associated with knowing that something is wrong with either yourself or a loved one as a result of this fearful stigma is so abundant a large part of the population looks to avoid it. The truth of the matter is, once the stigma is debunked and thrown out, more people will seek the appropriate treatment.

But, let’s get a few things straightened out.  Working in the mental health field most of my career and as owner of a mental health facility, what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced firsthand is rather simple: Not everyone who suffers from depression is dangerous, either to themselves or to others. In fact, the majority are not; and, I can even go a step further by stating, the people who do pose a danger to themselves or others are few and far between. The large part of the population with mental illness who come into our program want nothing more than to be normal, to be cured, and to live productive lives. They desire to be a part of society—to be accepted, loved and empathized with—and would go to great distances to help another human being reaching out for help.

This is fact. Most are kind and gentle and in a fight to find a balance between what goes on in their brain and who they want to be in society. And, all on top of this compounded stress, is their fight with a society that fears that at any moment they can pick up a gun and spray bullets all over the place, so they hide their diagnosis in shame of who they are:  someone with a chemical imbalance who had no choice in the cards they were dealt. Remember, they didn’t choose to suffer with depression; they didn’t make a bad choice in life that resulted in the symptoms. No, they were born with the chemical structure of their brain and that’s what they live with on a daily basis. They didn’t choose the imbalance any more than someone diagnosed with cancer chose that illness. But, a few bad apples spoil the bunch, adding to the stigma already associated with mental illness.

Understand, in the Dark Ages, it was thought that these people were possessed by demons; and, as time went on, they were committed to asylums with absolutely horrible conditions and given lobotomies and experimental treatments that sometimes left them more like zombies than a human being.  So, this stigma has been building and building over the centuries. 

Without the stigma that everyone with depression or mental illness is dangerous and to be avoided, more people will admit to and accept their diagnosis, leading to fewer and fewer instances of terror. 

We in the field are beginning to see a light at the end of this ever-long tunnel.  Acceptance, building a community that learns to live with the diagnosis and guiding each and every patient to the clear understanding that they can self-heal and live productive and fruitful lives are the core foundations of where the mental health field is headed. But, of course, we need help too; we must lay down our fear, both on the individual and family levels, of the stigma of mental illness and begin with treatment as early as possible, identifying potential problems and not sweeping them under the rug. There is no shame; you can receive the help you need and still accomplish all your goals and dreams.

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