Stigma and Depression

Depression and Stigma - Robin WilliamsRobin William’s death seemed to unleash a new level of openness to discussing depression and the ways that it affects the lives of so many of us.

A Nature editorial (Nature is perhaps the premier scientific journal in the world) got me thinking about next steps…

What would it take to eliminate the impact of stigma, and shame, and therefore avoidance, on those of us who wrestle with depression?

That would be a fitting memorial for him.

This question is one that I have thought about for years.

Two events, in particular, have had a huge impact on me:

The first is the fact of having lived in San Francisco throughout the AIDS epidemic. The very real experience of how, in at least some parts of the country, the crippling stigma surrounding homosexuality was mostly eliminated.

The second came from a series of visits to Japan in the 1990’s, serving as a consultant to various mental health organizations, and trying to help that country reform its approach to mental health treatment. Somewhere in the middle of that process I came to realize how profoundly, and unconsciously, those of us who are mental health professionals contribute to stigma. And have tried, since then, to change my approach.

Back to Robin Williams. The Nature editorial had this to say –

“For lack of a better way to put a terrible thing, there seemed to be more focus on the glamorous tragedy of the end, and not so much on the chronic debilitating (and recurring) struggle that came before it. Frankly, it seems that the death of someone with depression is easier to talk about than the life of someone with depression. That needs to change.”

Stigma will not end until we come to experience the reality that depression is all around us. That it is unavoidable. That, like hypertension, it is a condition that we, as humans, are vulnerable to.

And yet, we can never come to that place until those who have suffered with depression, or who still suffer with it, can talk about their experiences. And we can see that it is all around all of us: the rich, the poor, urban professionals, farmworkers, clergy, politicians, marines…

That is the paradox.