Despite its prevalence in our society, clinical depression remains a taboo topic of discussion for many people and a widely stigmatized illness in general. Which is a bit shocking, considering that depression is the most common mental illness in the United States, with approximately 17 percent of Americans experiencing a major depressive episode at least once during their lifetime. It's estimated that approximately 80 percent of people with clinical depression are not being treated for their symptoms, which can include loss of interest in activities, disturbances in sleep and appetite, and low self-esteem — and going without treatment can increase the likelihood of suicide.
Yet despite all this, many people still try to pretend that depression doesn't exist, or that a depressed person can be "talked out of it" (never mind the fact that the old adage "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" doesn't exactly apply when someone is battling a complex psychological disorder). The stigmatization of depression does nothing to help or encourage those grappling with depression — in fact, treating depression as a personal problem instead of a real illness can lead depressed people to avoid seeking professional help and instead blame themselves for their depression.
Simply put, depression is a serious illness, not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. Even if you never experience clinical depression, you're bound to encounter plenty of people in your life who are currently suffering or have suffered in the past — even if they haven't told you about it. So it's important to fight against stigmatization, even if you think it has nothing to do with your life. if you need more convincing, check out these eight reasons why the stigmatization of depression needs to become a thing of the past.
1. Stigmatizing Depression Is Ignorant
You've never suffered from depression? That's great! I'm serious. I am sincerely happy for anyone who's never dealt with depression, because no one deserves to suffer like that. But while people who have never suffered from depression may be lucky, they're not better or stronger people that those who have struggled with depression — and that luck is not an excuse to judge people who haven't been as fortunate.
If you choose to stigmatize depression, it's probably because you haven't taken the time to educate yourself. I'm not saying everyone needs go out and buy a psychology textbook to understand depression — but there are plenty of resources available online that can help you learn a lot in a very short period of time. It's well worth it to spend a few hours reading up on the causes of depression, the symptoms, and how it's treated. You'll be better-equipped to recognize the warning signs and help a loved one who is suffering — or to extend empathy towards any other depressed people in your life.
2. No One Chooses To Have An Illness
When someone is afflicted with a serious physical illness, we typically don't hear callous gossip about their laziness or how they're clearly not trying to recover. Talking that way about a person with a physical illness is pretty socially unacceptable — and for good reason.
But it's all too common to hear depression described as someone's failure to buck up and accept that life just isn't a picnic for anyone. "I mean, we all have problems!" Sigh. The bottom line is that depression isn't a figment of the sufferer's imagination. It's an illness caused by a combination of chemical imbalances and flawed mood regulators in the brain, which is hardly within the sufferer's control.
3. Stigmas Can Make Sufferers Feel Guilty
Your self-esteem is generally not at an all-time high when you're suffering from depression. And when you look around and see people stigmatizing your illness, it's easy to adopt their views and stigmatize yourself. It's easy to wonder if maybe you really are just weak and wallowing, like they say. Maybe this truly is a choice and you just need to snap out of it. Never mind that depression is caused by genes and chemistry — if no one else seems to care about the scientific facts, why should you? This self-perpetuation only worsens depression and deters people from seeking help from friends and mental health professionals. A few thoughtless words can have a real impact on the depressed people around you.
4. Stigmas Make People Less Likely To Open Up To Friends
If someone anticipates judgement and an accompanying lecture about how "happiness is a choice," they're not going to be open with friends about their struggles with depression. This is unfortunate, because when friends are supportive they can be a great source of hope and strength. Depression is an isolating illness and while no one single person can change that, it can mean a lot when friends want to understand what you're going through. It can help depressed people realize that they have nothing to be ashamed of — which can then motivate them to seek treatment.
5. Stigmas Can Deter Sufferers From Seeking Professional Help
Studies have shown that fear of judgement deters people from seeking professional help for their depression. Many people suffering from depression believe seeing a mental health professional would illicit a negative reaction from other people in their life — some even fear the judgement of doctors and therapists themselves. Since over 80 percent of people who do get treatment for depression report that it helps, having the courage to seek treatment is a key element of recovery — and it can be tough to summon that courage when you're hearing a lot of messages about how the depression that is touching every part of your life isn't even a real illness.
6. Stigmas Breed Dangerous Misconceptions
After a tragic event like a mass shooting, media sources will often offer the obligatory report that the perpetrator had a "history of mental illness." This vague comment lumps all mental illnesses together, when in reality there are a vast array of mental conditions with wildly different symptoms. But the real problem with the discourse is that it promotes a stereotype that's not accurate: A study conducted by North Carolina State University in 2014 showed that mentally ill individuals are more likely to be the victims of violence — not the perpetrators.
While it's true that many perpetrators of crimes and violence are mentally unwell, we need to stop focusing on the idea that people with depression are dangerous — because, generally, this is far from true. Our focus needs to shift towards promoting a culture that encourages people to seek help without the fear of judgement.
7. Stigmas Can Lead To Inadequate Insurance Coverage
The stigmatization of depression is so ingrained in society that it's even written into our laws. While private insurance companies and the Affordable Care Act require coverage for those suffering from depression and other mental illnesses, Medicaid and Medicare laws are a different story. When the Medicaid law was written over fifty years ago, Congress included a provision declaring funds may be used for hospitals treating physical ailments, but not mental illnesses. A half century and boatloads of research later, the law remains the same. Similarly, Medicare places limitations on the amount of time an individual can spend in an inpatient psychiatric unit, while there is no such maximum for inpatient treatment of a physical illness. Stigmas that present mental illness as unseemly or "not a real disease" keep laws like this in place, even when they fly in the face of modern medical knowledge.
8. Stigmas Cause Workplace Discrimination
Research has shown that the majority of people with depression want to work and are fully capable of being productive members of the workforce. However, a whopping 50 percent of employers say they would be reluctant to hire an individual who is being treated for depression. This is extremely troubling — not only because depressed people need money to survive, just like everyone else, but because, for many individuals, the structure and productivity of a work day can aid in recovery. And, not surprisingly, many individuals who are employed report feeling ostracized by colleagues if information about their depression is discovered. Sure, it's unavoidable that people will bring their personal biases to the workplace. But if we didn't demonize people with depression, painting them as dangerous or incapable, this kind of discrimination would be viewed as completely unacceptable.
Very few people who stigmatize depression and mental illness are doing so on purpose. But thoughtless words and outdated attitudes can help perpetuate these kind of harmful stereotypes.