Adventures in Stigma and Depression

In many ways, this post has been a long time coming. In some ways, it started way back last summer when I read Nicholas Provenzano’s post about depression. It surfaced again on Bell Let’s Talk Day when a former student posted this personal story of his own journey, and just this past week when I read this story about a professor’s public discussion of his battle with mental illness. And I am reminded of it in small ways on an almost weekly basis, when I talk to my students about whether teachers with particular marginalized identities should speak out to act as role models for students (though this generally comes up in the context of LGBTQ teachers’ responsibilities to come out to students), or when students confide in me about their own struggles with mental health. But up until this point, the terrible stigma surrounding the issue has kept me quiet. Until now.

I struggle with depression. There. I said it.  

It’s okay to be depressed. It does not make me weak, or unreliable, or a burden.

I was diagnosed with major depression when I was a teenager. Since then, my mental health has been consistent only in its inconsistency. I have periods – days, months, even years – of happiness, and I also have periods of deep sadness, or even just numbness (perhaps best described in the awesomely illustrated blog, Hyperbole and a Half). It is a battle I know I will fight for the rest of my life. I am, thankfully, a person who functions well even on my worst days – I get out of bed, I feed myself, and I carry out my daily activities. Others aren’t so lucky.

Perhaps this revelation doesn’t come as much of a surprise to some people. If Twitter used an algorithm, it would probably already have diagnosed me: I read and share quite a bit about mental health. But I have never felt brave enough to bring myself into the story. And then a couple weeks ago I read this wonderful article about depression, identity, and medication. For the first time, I could really see my own experience in the author’s story – and it was an incredible feeling. I felt a little less alone in my depression. And then I thought, why have I never acknowledged my own struggle publicly? Of course, that’s an easy answer. To quote Peter Railton, the brave professor who spoke out about his own depression:

“I know what has held me back all these years. Would people think less of me? Would I seem to be tainted, reduced in their eyes, someone with an inner failing whom no one would want to hire or with whom no one would want to marry or have children? Would even friends start tip-toeing around my psyche? Would colleagues trust me with responsibility?” 

But as I often tell my students, saying nothing at all is a form of complicity – it creates a null curriculum that silently screams: “We do not speak of mental illness.” And this is no longer acceptable for me. To quote the insightful Dr. Railton again, “Why should I contribute to making it harder for others to acknowledge their depression and seek help?”

Photo Credit: katiahildebrandt via Compfight cc

So instead of struggling in silence, I am speaking out. I am using my own privilege to try to break down some of that ugly stigma. It’s okay to be depressed. It does not make me weak, or unreliable, or a burden.

 Ultimately, will this post make a difference? Perhaps, or perhaps not. In the end, everything we share online is sent out into cyberspace to await its uncertain fate – will it go viral, or will it fade away into the annals of Internet history? We share, perhaps, in the vague hope that doing so will be a comforting experience: that the globalization of grief made possible by social media might lead to increased empathy, to support from strangers, to the creation of new connections, and ultimately to a better humanity. And maybe, just maybe, my post will give another person the courage to speak out. We can only hope.


5 thoughts on “Adventures in Stigma and Depression

  1. Acknowledging and giving a voice to something that is often stigmatizing can be empowering and liberating…not necessarily from the prison that our minds can create, rather from the highly judgemental world in which we live. Providing a voice starts normalizing the fact that we don’t all feel, navigate, and make sense of our world the same way. Furthermore, this post catalyzes me, the reader, to re-frame our question about what is normal when it comes to our mental/emotional well-being. Yes, we could psychologize away to define it…but I feel like we are all one experience and one story away from mental/emotional paralysis or, depending on how one copes with it, a shift that deepens the human condition. Perhaps we need unity not so much uniformity when it comes to helping those who are feeling the world more deeply. After all, we never know when we’ll be faced with the imprisonment of our minds and the paralysis of our emotions. Thank you for sharing your story and posting it on #STARSchat and #Bellletstalk last Wednesday. I know that I don’t understand your experience (nobody can but you), but I hope you find comfort in knowing that you’re not alone and that you hold onto the hope that we can be remarkably resilient creatures because big feelings eventually subside (even if temporarily).

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  4. Thanks for sharing. I don’t suffer from depression but has been married for 20 years to someone who does. He is responsible, hard working and very caring. It takes understanding and patience and the ability to separate the behavior that come with the bouts of depression from the persona. It took years of persistence from me for him to even admit that he needed to seek help. Its even harder for our males to admit as it make them feel emasculated. Its all because of the stigma attached to issues of mental health. If we can remove the stigma, have open conversations more persons would come ‘out of the closet’ and get help.Thanks again.

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