Let’s Discuss: The Stigmatization of Depression

Depression Defined

Hi folks. Let’s get a little serious today, shall we?

As you all probably already know, the passing of our beloved Robin Williams and the somewhat ironic circumstances under which it occurred, has spurred a lot of conversation over the last few days. Some of it has been sweet and thoughtful. Some of it has been tasteless and cruel. And some of it has uncomfortably settled somewhere in-between the two. With this surging debate on depression and mental illness, suicide, and our misconceptions about what kinds of folks are susceptible to this stuff, I suddenly felt a need to candidly speak on the topic. So here it goes.

When I first heard the news, I was shocked – as I think most of us were. I can’t say that I ever thought of Robin Williams and depression in the same sentence before, or even remotely at the same time even though it turns out he’d been struggling for years. And perhaps that is one of the biggest lessons in all of this – that depression can surface is some of the most unlikely places.

Think about it for a minute. How could depression be a choice, a weakness in character or nothing more than situational sadness – as it is often stigmatized in society and in the media – and still have found a way to attack an incredibly accomplished and loved man with a spectacular career – a man who possessed an inspiring talent big enough to bring joy and laughter to so many people around the world? Doesn’t that demonstrate the power of deep, intrinsic sadness and how predatory it can be? I’d say so.

And yet, after scrolling through dozens of sympathetic and shock-filled social media posts regarding William’s passing and the circumstances behind it, there it was – the inevitable judgment, hatred and mis-education that [sadly] compromises so much of today’s online experience. Words like coward, suicide promotion, choice and selfish began to fill the commentary – and I thought how lovely – listen to these people who have likely never dealt with actual addiction or depression passing judgment on something they don’t understand. As I read more and more, I came across an increasing number of individuals turning the sad passing of a legend into an opportunity to spew hate and spread rampant mis-information just because they can, and just because they have easy access to a mass audience that will listen.

Come on folks. Haven’t we learned this lesson time and time again already? Don’t we all know by now that it is from hate that so much of the evil in our world stems? When we hate, stigmatize and blame, we shut people off – we leave no room for healing and we invite more pain. In our society, depression and mental illness is often so stigmatized and so silenced, that many of those who suffer from it are forced to suffer in silence. They do not seek the proper help. They attempt to fix something that is much bigger than themselves by self-medicating or taking other measures. And then when it becomes too much to handle all alone, we judge them. We call them cowards. We view the sympathy and understanding of others as the promotion of suicide. We point fingers, and we blame. But rarely do we truly understand what was going on inside that person’s brain, inside his or her feelings, inside that broken heart, that would have driven them to take such extreme measures. Can you imagine how big the turmoil has to be to get there? I can. 

I have been there. I have suffered from depression, and it’s still something I have to work on every day — fighting it with everything I have. Doesn’t it all make a little more sense now? Yes. That is a large part of the reason why I push positivism so much, why I work so hard to find the good in all the nooks and crannies of everyday life – it’s why I fight – because fighting is what has helped me escape that darkness, stay healthy and become a source of light – at least I hope – to others.

You see, depression is a very strange and powerful force. I know firsthand how hard it can be to explain to people who have been fortunate enough to never experience it how tangible and real depression can actually be. To me, depression is best described as this hopeless, gaping, stinging feeling right in the middle of your chest – it causes physical exhaustion, random tears, sometimes outlandish thoughts, desperation, restlessness and a long list of other things. When it’s really bad, your body literally hurts and the thought of getting up or going out to complete the smallest little task – hurts even more. Smiling hurts. Conversation hurts. Pretending — it hurts. At times, your bed starts to feel like the only safe, comfortable place in the world – where the pain seems to subside even if only for temporary relief, and so you cling to it.

Often you just have no idea why you feel this way – and that right there can feel sufficiently maddening. You think, well, nothing is particularly wrong right now. Why am I so sad? Am I going crazy? What is wrong with me? These questions only serve to amp up the hopelessness and self-loathing – and the vicious cycle continues to spiral out of control, often gaining dangerous momentum.

Luckily for me, through the grace of God, the universe or who knows what, I have been able to work through my depression, and I have stayed relatively free of it for the last few years — with only short-lived bouts here and there. Still it is always there – in the back of my mind – the possibility that it could creep back on me at any time – and that, most days, is mortifying in and of itself.

I was very, very lucky indeed, and I still am. I was able to overcome. I found light. I found a way to turn my sadness into an almost obsessive mission to practice positivism and healthy emotional habits as often as possible – to fight and to not let it get too big. I constantly read messages of hope, and I spread my own to others. I have learned to catch myself when I start to feel the smallest inkling of that awfully familiar sting, and I fight. I force myself to get up and go out and connect, to get dressed and show up. I fight.

But here’s the thing. What did I do to deserve the ability to overcome? Nothing. Am I somehow better, smarter or more capable because I was able to escape my depression – and the suicidal thoughts that did cross my mind quite often circa 2009 – than those who did not find an out before it was too late? Of course not. So how can I judge? How can any of us judge? How can any of us truly know the kind of pain inside a person, and the reasons why they might have or might not have overcome it? Why should we call them cowards when they fought some of the strongest demons that can afflict a human being – depression and mental illness. Who are we to assume they are weak or selfish or unworthy? 

So here’s a thought. Why not promote openness and sharing instead? Why not extend your hand to someone you suspect might be struggling with this kind of battle? Why not choose to lead with kindness instead of with hate? Don’t you think that would help stop someone form committing suicide more so than shaming them for their struggle, and making them feel even more alone than the demons inside already do?

This is critical folks. We will never be able to walk anyone to the light, if we continue to lead with darkness. Let’s try a little harder today, please. Let’s try to respect the struggles of others so that they might respect our own. Let’s work together and not against each other. Let’s be a little bit more sensitive to the things we don’t understand. Let’s ask more questions and make fewer assumptions. Let’s do better. I know we can.

And to those suffering from depression or from similar battles, if you feel like no one in the world understands, I’m here to tell you that I do. I really, really do. Reach out to someone for help. Leave the shame at the door, and put your life and your well-being first. You CAN escape it. You CAN find light. You CAN find happiness and health. You CAN overcome. You CAN. I promise you, you CAN.

Love,

Sonia, Word Share Junkie