“At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. When it comes to mental health conditions, we often treat them differently from other diseases like cancer, diabetes or asthma. And that makes no sense. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.”
-Michelle Obama, Former First Lady of the United States-
Any illness which holds the capacity to tear away from your normal and adjusted life should call for some form of sympathy rather than a negative stigma that surrounds the human body’s most critical muscle, the brain. The human brain is an incredible thing if you really think about all that it does. It controls everything. It allows you to walk, breathe, see, feel, and many other facets of life that we take for granted. With all of the positive things that come with such amazing parts of human existence, there is bound to be an aspect of negativity at some point or another.
13%-14% of people will suffer from some form of major depressive disorder in their lifetime, most commonly in the first 40 years of life. Depression is something that occupies your thoughts and takes over your impulsivity. It is not staying in bed the day after your dog passed away; rather, it is a consistent and constant thought that most people who suffer from it are plagued by and are considering in each waking moment.
To put it into perspective for you, think about the worst illness you–or even someone close to you–has ever had. That can range from having the flu, or the whooping cough, to being diagnosed with a physical illness such as diabetes or cancer. Now, imagine you were sick with the aforementioned illness and rather than your mom or dad making you a warm bowl of soup or getting you to the doctor to take the next requisite steps, you were told to, “get over it” by those surrounding you and by society at large. Every person is guilty of telling someone to “get over” something when they’re feeling down without taking into consideration the backstory that they may be living. So now I pose a question to you: if the brain is a muscle in the human body that can suffer ailments relative to diabetes and cancer, why are people afraid to talk about it? Why is there a stigma surrounding something that is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States?
The empathy and compassion within the practice of putting yourself into someone else’s shoes is critical to understanding mental illness. Still, this article is only covering one of the numerous mental illnesses outlined by the American Psychiatric Association. Understanding every aspect of mental illness is simply impossible, but removing the stigma around it, is in fact, quite realistic.
The problem with depression is this: You believe your self worth is that of something you think lowly of. You consider things for hours or days when they should be a passive thought. You anticipate the bad in life and you struggle to allow light into your existence. Why? Because depression and sadness is an addiction. Your brain can get addicted to alcohol or drugs just as easily as it can get addicted to feeling inclinations of plummeting self-worth and deteriorating value. At a certain point in the illness of depression, the sadness becomes familiar and comfortable, making for a nearly impossible seeming recovery, regardless of the support you may have from friends and family. The sadness and continual thoughts of negativity become comfortable and you turn to them in times of need, creating a cycle that seems never ending and for some, terminal.
Perhaps the problem with the stigma of depression is that depression is commonly associated with suicide. A term that seems selfish and far from thoughtful. It may very well be selfish and something that seems like it uses little to no thought, but people who have suffered from this illness have something to explain. Although there is a selfish and negative stigma around the word in relation to suicide, to some people suffering from major depressive disorder, it is the only option they see to escape from their grueling reality. We run from the world as if it is chasing us when we should be looking for signs and preventing such things from happening. Words are only as powerful as we allow them to be, and we have given too much power to the word suicide.
1 in every 4 people suffer from sort of mental disorder, whether it be a major or minor episode of depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, an eating disorders, or even a personality disorders. The harsh reality is that, in fact, we are surrounded by people who struggle with this and many other mental states. Classmates, parents, relatives, siblings, friends, teachers, coaches, lawyers, doctors, and therapists struggle with this disorder. 13%-14% may not seem like a large number on the grand spectrum of the United States population, but with currently around 319 million people, roughly 45 million people in the United States alone–in both small and large ways–struggle with some sort of mood disorder. It takes over your ability to function in the way you desire and restricts you from social activities and causes fights, stress, and even more depression.
I suppose the best person to hear it from is a fellow classmate who has experienced the turmoil of depression. What better person to attempt to relate to than a person who walks the same halls and sits in the same desks as you? As was mentioned earlier, understanding depression and removing its negative stigma is a practice in empathy and compassion. These subjects’ story can help us start in the right direction–one towards understanding, recognition, and warmth.
What is the most difficult part about suffering from depression?
“For me, I feel like the hardest part about suffering from depression is the constant battle that you face against yourself to do simple things like talk to people, feel happy, fall asleep, take a shower, do your homework, get out of bed in the morning, etc. It is difficult to do all of this while wearing a smile so people don’t think something’s wrong. Everything feels so dark and heavy but there’s really nothing you can do about it.”
“I think the most difficult part of living with depression is how difficult it makes such simple tasks. When I wake up in the morning on a good day, I go straight to my bathroom, brush my teeth, and get ready to see my friends at school. On a bad day though, it’s drastically different. I don’t want to leave my bed, open the curtains, or look at my phone. I want to be alone and thoughts infect my brain usually ending in some form of self harm to get myself up and ready for a day. That is the hardest part for me inwardly, but externally, trying to explain myself to people all the time. That has become much more difficult as time goes on. I used to make up problems with my life to excuse the sadness I would feel, but now it’s like I have no excuse for how I feel so when people ask what’s wrong–I never have anything to say.”
Are you intimidated by the stigma that surrounds mental illness in today’s society?
“There is a fear that if people found out I had depression, they would immediately change their opinion of me. I don’t want people to feel bad or think that I’m a dark and emotional person who cries all the time. You have no power to control how or when depression will affect you and it can look so different for so many people. It is a sickness, not a choice. I think that is one thing people who haven’t experienced depression or any form of mental illness can’t fully comprehend: what it’s like to have distorted thoughts and make unhealthy decisions without realizing it.”
“It’s how much power you give to the word. If you treat it like it is the worst thing that has ever happened to you and you begin to scare the people that want to support you, the stigma is reinforced. But if you try to overcome it and beat it, the stigma begins to disappear. It’s all about how you treat it.”
Have you reached out or gotten any form of support to help you recover? If so, what was it and how did it affect you and your life?
“I’ve been familiar with my social worker, Ms. Lisa Huffman, here at the high school since freshman year. This year especially when my mental health really sank low, I went to go check in with her every once in awhile and it’s so nice to have someone always available at school whenever I get overwhelmed. After some of my friends contacted my parents, I ended up attending an IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) program for about three months that was filled with teens going through very similar situations. Although it was definitely a time investment with it being 12 hours a week, there are so many important healthy coping skills I learned during my time there.”
“For 3 years I didn’t tell anyone or confess how I felt to anyone for a fear of being judged. In retrospect though, I should have done something a lot sooner. I’m currently in an IOP program as well as individual therapy. From where I am right now, it is definitely hard to see the benefits of it at times, but I know it will pay off in the long run.”
If you had to describe the low points of your depression, how would you describe them?
“It’s like I began living with tunnel vision and started to lose perspective and the importance I play in other people’s lives. Everything just feels kind of “blah” and nothing really makes me happy. As a result, I resorted to self harm and alcohol to numb all the emotions I wasn’t comfortable with. I really just stopped caring about everything and everyone, including myself.”
“The low points are definitely the hardest part because you lose sight of any help being offered and any of the good parts of life. All you can focus on and see is the bad. It’s negativity everywhere. You don’t care about anyone, including yourself.”
What can others do to help you when you are in a state of panic or distress?
“Just be there. However, I know that whenever I personally am feeling distressed, the last thing I want to do is drag one of my friends into it. I’ve learned, though, that friends want to help. So let them. And if you’re that friend of someone who might be struggling, check in on them and show them you care by simply being empathetic, willing to talk, and not judging or criticizing the way that person is feeling.”
“Ask questions. Try to be the one to initiate the conversation because I know for me at least, I don’t ever approach someone else about what I am facing. I just wait for people to ask. It’s the most comfortable, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be to actually talk about it, it helps.”
What has been the hardest part about helping a friend with depression?
“The hardest part about it is the unpredictability of it. One day they could be ready to go down to the city for lunch and walking to the Bean, and the next they might not respond to your texts or calls for hours making you worry about them. Another difficulty is definitely–during the bad phases–remembering that they are still the same person you became friends with in the first place. They are still all the things they used to be, it’s just a bad phase that will pass with time.”
The most important thing about helping and not hurting those people who do struggle with mental illness, is to be aware of the weight of words have in the lives of every person. Each case is different, of course, because no two human brains could possibly have the same or even similar chemical makeups. It is critical to understand the things that could worsen depression for those going through it, and the things that could trigger a relapse in someone who has recovered from such an illness.
At times, it seems that it is just part of high school and the vocabulary teenagers hold and chose to share with each other–“This makes me depressed,” or “I hate myself.” Still, knowing that a joke or expression could be the thing that puts a person back in the cycle of depression is something to be aware of, especially as our brains are still developing and will continue to develop into our early twenties.
At least once a week, I will hear a conversation in the library that starts off with negative connotations and words towards a specific persona and ends with someone exclaiming to the rest of the group, “go kill yourself.” Although, to many, this may seem harmless and is just an assembly of words put together with the intention of a harmless insult, these words could be the thing that throw a recovering person down a wayward path and spiral back down into a hole they feel there is no escape from. Of course, this is one of the more extreme examples I could have chosen, but I have seen the effects these words have on many of my close friends who experience or have experienced episodes of depression.
For those who know the feeling of being friends with someone who is depressed or suffers from another form of mental illness, you will know the difficulty of trying to support your loved one while people actively use expressions that set them back. By no means is this article meant to take a stab at those who have mistakenly expressed words of hurt, but rather to raise awareness of the truth that mental illness is always a part of someone’s life.
As I previously mentioned, it is not a light topic and is certainly not something that should be romanticized. Our community has suffered its own losses to mental illness that continue to have tremendous impacts on those families and friends who lost a loved one just a few short years ago.
So what is there to do to start the prevention of a stigma that has been so heavily influenced in our lives? What can 1,700 students do to start a movement to help those who need it most?
Use a skill that we all possess, empathy.
Understanding people and other people’s ways of thinking, behaviors, motives, and desires is the start to understanding something that is hard to comprehend in the first place. It is understandable to not fully comprehend mental illness–it’s confusing and doesn’t come with any sort of instructions.
Sometimes it is 100% hoping each day will be better than the last. Sometimes it is feeling hurt and worthless as though they are a let down to those around them. Sometimes it is consuming thoughts and desires that have little rationale. It is something that cannot be cured, but it can, however, be helped.
It always starts with one person. You can choose to help or hurt. Always choose to help.