Thursday, October 7, 2010

For shame!

Many of you know that I have a particular interest in mental-health issues. Today, in the Ottawa Citizen, there is a story about Rachel Scott-Mignon who shared her long struggle with bipolar disorder. She says, "Having a mental illness is a lonely place." Part of why it is a lonely place is because there is still a stigma around mental illness and reaching out for help.

Isn't it interesting that, even in this age of over-sharing, where young people will readily post Facebook statuses that declare their intentions to drink to oblivion or perform sexual acts with strangers, the one thing we are reluctant to share is our struggles with mental health? (Not that I'm suggesting that people post their clinical status on Facebook!)

Isn't it interesting that I am willing, here on my blog, to share my gastric struggles, and my humiliating Biology test answer, and even my disaster of ripping down my neighbour's fence without permission, but remain mum about my decades-long struggle with depression?

In part, I don't talk about it because, thanks to modern antidepressants and good therapy, it really isn't an issue for me any longer. It's kind of a no-news story. [Nothing to see here. Move along.]

But. Does my silence reinforce the perception that there is no hope? Am I reinforcing the stigma?

I can't tell you how many whispered conversations I've had with friends and colleagues who confess that they've felt overwhelmed, cried for nights on end, have despaired that life would never be worth living, that they would always be alone. Always with a certain amount of shame, and a definite call to secrecy. This, even from people who readily talk about physical ailments.

And I know that taking antidepressants can be a black mark on your personnel record - getting in the way of promotions, career opportunities, and security clearances.

Ironically, that means people who would benefit from these medications and therapies are, instead, struggling along without them and are therefore at greater risk of harming themselves or others, or of using the skewed judgment of someone whose inner world is coated in darkness.

How many people are self-medicating with street drugs or alcohol, rather than taking the appropriate medications to treat their neurochemical imbalances?

Frankly, it makes me angry.

I'm angry that I struggled for 20 years to beat this beast on my own before I finally saw a doctor and started taking antidepressants.

I'm angry that I then felt I should "go off" meds as soon as possible and, again, cope on my own, only to relapse into self-loathing.

I'm angry at the cost my family paid for my feelings of shame about my illness.

But even more than anger, I feel gratitude.

I am grateful for loved ones who endured my mood swings and my abuse and who still love me.

I am grateful that such a simple thing as a pill allows me to find joy in the everyday, and give my dear ones the love they deserve.

Why should there be any shame in that?

I'm not suggesting that everyone should broadcast their mental-health struggles, but I do encourage those of you who ARE depressed to get help and not feel ashamed about it, and I encourage those of you who have been successfully treated to be open to sharing your story with others who may be feeling like lepers, trapped in their own private, hopeless hells.


  1. I have told others about my SSRI prescription and they were surprised. I wonder if they were suprised that I admitted it or that I take it?

    - anonymous

    - no, just kidding, Steve

  2. I have my own issues and struggles and have been medicated in the past and from time to time need a Xanax. But you are so right about the stigma that goes with this disease. I wish it was a non issue and we could all be okay talking to our doctors without feeling like we are crazy. XXOO

  3. There's a social stigma around mental illness which can be overcome through education.

    However, I think that there's more to this than cultural norms. There's an innate sense -- an instinct that people have which makes them want to recoil from sufferers of diseases like depression much the same way that they'd recoil from someone suffering from a very contagious influenza virus. Emotional contagions are a real thing, too.

  4. Dan,

    Interesting thoughts. I agree that mood disorders certainly can be contagious and that people naturally avoid being around "downers" (Eeyore was never my favourite Pooh character).

    Neither of those things *should* prevent someone who is ill from approaching a doctor. Whereas someone with contagious influenza would not feel ashamed for needing medical care, those with mental illness often do feel that shame. And shouldn't.

  5. Well said. The misplaced shame for needing medical care may, in part, result from the feeling of being avoided or shunned. This is a tragedy.

    Thank you for writing such a compelling and honest post.


What did you think? Any comments?

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...