No, I’m not okay, and yes, you can help


Photo credit: auntjojo under a Creative Commons license

This weekend, I have been, well, what I like to call “wallowing.” Actually, it’s been going on a bit longer than that, but on Thursday I broke through the Netflix-induced haze and graded a class set of papers (and yeah, just doing that much is kind of a big deal). And it’s not to say that I’ve done nothing at all this weekend, but I haven’t done as much as I should have, and that’s led to a cycle of wallowing, guilt for wallowing, more reason for wallowing, more reason for guilt for wallowing … and so on and so forth.

And then in this charming vortex of unpleasantness, I realized that exactly one year ago today, I first wrote openly about my own longtime struggle with depression and the stigma that surrounds mental illness. February has always been a particularly unpleasant month for me (and at least one depressed friend concurs, so perhaps a move to go straight from January to March is in order). So I figured that today is as good a day as any to revisit the topic, because it certainly hasn’t gone away.

To be honest, every time I speak or blog about this issue, I half expect for the world to come crashing down around me as people realize that I’m maybe not quite as “put together” or “stable” as they thought I was. I don’t like asking for help, and I don’t want to be treated any differently.

Wait. “I don’t want to be treated any differently”? Really?

I’m starting to see how problematic that statement is. It’s a statement born from the ugly epidemic of stigma that surrounds depression in our society, and it makes no sense. Imagine a person with a broken leg. Wouldn’t we treat that person somewhat differently, recognizing that some tasks might be more difficult (or downright impossible) for that person? I would certainly hope so.

So why do those of us with depression often hesitate to ask for some extra understanding for ourselves when we are going through a difficult period? I imagine that some of this stems from the fact that depression and other health disorders are often accompanied by anxiety, low self-esteem, and a general desire to keep our problems under wraps lest we be found weak. It probably also comes from hearing, time and time again, you’ll be fine…just get through it…your life isn’t that bad…

But every time we say it, we are in fact making things worse for everyone with mental illness, because we are suggesting that we don’t sometimes need a little extra understanding. And I think what we are really trying to say is “I don’t want to be treated like my mental illness makes me ‘lesser than.’”

So maybe, instead of trying to fight stigma by saying, essentially, that we shouldn’t be stigmatized because we don’t require any help, maybe we could work instead to be open about the fact that yes, sometimes we do need help, and sometimes we do need some understanding, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we are weak. It just means that we have a mental illness, and that illness is just as real as a physical ailment.

I’m trying to do this. It’s hard. On the first day of class this semester, I stood in front of a lecture theatre of 100 undergraduates (future teachers, no less, who are often burdened by an intense desire for perfection) and spoke about my depression, despite fearing that it would make them treat me differently. I did so to show them that it’s okay to need help and to show that sometimes being an ally means risking our own privilege (in this case, this is the privilege I’m afforded by staying quiet about an “ism” that isn’t outwardly visible).

And I’ve noticed that my students have started speaking out as well. A few weeks ago, students in STARS Regina ran a Twitter chat about supporting students with mental health. Several of them have also taken the brave step of blogging about their own experiences (Raquel, Kendra, Dave, and Meagan, to name a few).

Ultimately, we all need to be more open, and to trust in the humanity of those around us. So to all of us who need a little extra kindness sometimes, I apologize for discounting that. To all of my friends and colleagues and students and complete strangers who are just a little broken (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), I’m sorry for trying to minimize your stories. And when you find yourself wallowing, as I often have recently, remember that you are not alone, and that we, the broken ones, are all around, perhaps hiding in fear of stigma, but always ready to listen and give a little kindness.

And by the way, to whoever decided that we should add the extra leap day to February, thanks a lot.