October 10th 2012 was World Mental Health Day, an initiative to promote better understanding and awareness of mental health problems around the globe, and kick off a whole month of events and campaigns on the subject. Part of this initiative comes in the form of testimonies from those who suffer from mental health disorders but operate normal lives in our societies. That is what this article is. This article is about dealing with depression.
I was first diagnosed with depression four years ago. Since then, I have further been diagnosed with panic disorder and social anxiety disorder. While the depression has come and gone, the others have been fairly constant in my life since they first appeared. I have received a variety of treatments, including counseling, medication and lifestyle changes. Depression, by its nature, is a disease that can unfortunately come back time and time again, and requires a high degree of vigilance to deal with.
Those who know about my anxiety and panic problems tend to express a high degree of surprise, considering my extroverted personality, large friendship group and confident demeanour. The fragility that comes with anxiety does not seem to fit with the person I appear to be on a daily basis at university, at home or out with friends. It is one of the great contradictions of mental health that those who suffer from disorders like mine often appear the exact opposite. For example, I enjoy public speaking and take part on a regular basis, because social anxiety disorder does not have an effect on me when talking to groups of people, it is when it is just a few that I start to have a problem. The disorders are a struggle because you do not know when in the day they will take hold, or indeed if they will at all. I speak about social anxiety and panic disorder on a fairly regular basis, because rule number one for me has always been I will not allow them to define my life.
Depression is another matter. Few people will have heard me speak openly about being clinically depressed, in contrast to my anxiety. Depression is still very much a taboo in our society; something to be ashamed of and hidden from view. I have personally seen the way people draw back from you when they hear about depression, as if it were contagious. A few months ago two Members of Parliament made speeches about dealing with depression themselves, which drew gasps from their colleagues. People were speechless that it was possible to operate daily life, particularly in a demanding job, with a disease that has such a terrible reputation. The truth, as is so often the case, is a long way from the public perception.
Certainly, depression can have an extremely adverse effect on work and day to day life. It often has disruptive effects on sleeping patterns, appetite, ability to concentrate and reason as well as personal interaction. Those who suffer it may exhibit addictive personalities that can further undermine their ability to operate on a daily basis. The reality, however, is that the majority of depressives are not unable to function in that way. Their pain is excruciating, the disruption to their lives significant, and their medical condition very real, yet they go about their daily lives as if nothing was wrong. They rise to the heights of industry and public life, achieve great sporting or musical success, and those around them would never know the personal strains they deal with behind the scenes.
In the two cultures which I have the most experience of depression, Britain and the United States, the approach to depression is fairly different but the stigma attached is the same. In the UK the attitude seems to tell people to ‘snap out of it’, to sweep it under the rug and not to talk about it. The US attitude is overwhelmingly to medicate the problem, and use drugs as a long-term solution in an extraordinarily short-sighted policy.
What the two cultures have in common when it comes to depression is a deep and abiding sense of shame. Those who suffer from depression are made to feel as if they themselves caused the problem in the first place, and that it should not be spoken about or even really acknowledged. This in turn promotes further withdrawal from society and a lack of articulation of the true nature of the disease. This situation is wrong and should be addressed.
The point of this testimony, of standing up and saying I have depression, is to demonstrate to those with a misguided view of the disease that those of us who are depressives don’t mope around feeling sorry for ourselves, but try everyday to push back against a medical condition that we have no control over. As you read this, take a moment to think about the fact that you probably know a dozen or more people who will suffer from depression in their lives. They don’t talk about it, and society makes them feel ashamed of it from day one.
Shouldn’t we do something to make it easier for them? Shouldn’t we break down the stigma and ask ourselves how society can better provide for those with depression?
My name is Philip Gardner, and I have depression. It has a huge affect on me and how I live my life, but it does not define my personality as a whole. Today I decided it was time to stand up and speak up to show people I am not ashamed. Take a moment to think of those who did not feel able to do so during World Mental Health Month.