Let’s talk about depression! Weird that I put an exclamation mark at the end of that first sentence, right? I mean, no one wants to talk about mental health. It’s a private struggle. Keep it to yourself. It’s probably not real anyway. Everyone gets sad. Buck up buddy. There are starving people in Africa. You have so much going for you. Look on the bright side, and muscle through.
Except what about when you can’t? You try, sure. You put a smile on and tell people you’re fine or OK. Really, you’re not. If you could, you’d just curl up into a ball and never leave your bed. Some days, that’s exactly what you do. Sometimes you manage to put on a false face for the world, and go about your day. But you still accomplish almost nothing, and then you feel even worse. You know there are things that should make you happy. You can understand the positive aspects of your life just as you can understand that Lincoln is the capital of Nebraska. But even armed with this knowledge, you aren’t happy. You are depressed.
I want you to know that when you feel this way, you are experiencing the symptoms of an illness. Just like you can get physically ill, you can become mentally ill as well, and depression is a mental illness. The term mental illness has been used as a pejorative, and so admitting to being mentally ill sounds scary and embarrassing. I wish it didn’t. I wish people thought of mental illness the same as we think of physical illness. It should be something we treat, just as if you had an infection or other disease.
Unfortunately, instead of that, there is a real stigma to admitting you need help with mental health. There are a lot of things that cut against admitting to a struggle with mental health issues. First, depression is basically invisible. Get a sinus infection, and it’s obvious that you’re running a fever with congestion, etc. Have depression, and there are often no physical symptoms. Unless you act on suicidal thoughts or develop dangerous coping mechanisms like substance abuse or cutting, it can be difficult to see outwardly that there is anything wrong with a person struggling with their mental health.
Secondly, because mental health is taken so lightly, it can be embarrassing to admit to having poor mental health. No one wants to be thought of as crazy, and admitting to depression often feels like you’re saying something is wrong with you. Here’s the thing — admitting to depression is saying that something is wrong with you, but that’s OK. Saying you have a cold is admitting that something is wrong with you, too, and no one freaks out about that. Depression should be the same. Knowing that something is wrong allows you to fix what is broken. Ignore the stupid people, admit something is wrong, and work on getting better.
Treatment for mental health is way too hard to find, but it is out there. There are medicines, counselors, and lots of people with letters after their names who spend a lot of time and effort learning about how to treat mental illness. Go see them. Get help. Treat your mental health.
Some people say drugs are never the answer, and that’s fine, but some people also say that leprechauns are real and the world is flat. Drugs can definitely be the answer sometimes. Treatment with medication is one of the most effective tools to combat most illnesses. It’s the same with mental health as it is with physical health.
That’s not to say there are no drawbacks to medication. Medication tends to require doctor supervision, follow-ups and bloodwork. Medication also doesn’t always work. Sometimes it works for a while and slowly stops helping. Sometimes you have to try multiple medications before you find something that helps. Sometimes you have to switch back and forth between medications to get proper treatment. It is an ongoing process that can be very different for everyone.
On top of that, it can be difficult to continue treatment when it feels like you are being judged for trying to get better. I can think of no other health issue where a person receiving treatment is made to feel guilty about it.
“Oh, your medicine isn’t working? See, that means you didn’t need it in the first place! Clearly, you aren’t as sick as you think you are, because the medicine didn’t fix you,” people say.
Apply that same logic to physical disease, and its absurdity is obvious. “Oh, that medicine didn’t shrink your tumor? You were probably just faking it to get attention.” Surely, all patients are always given the best possible medicine the first time, and no one with any illness would ever need to try multiple medicines, surgeries, or treatments to find something that helps them. I mean, right?
Of course not, but this is still the standard that a lot of mental health treatment is held to. I can’t see the mental health problem, so I don’t believe it’s there. The first medicine didn’t fix it, so nothing was wrong to be fixed. This also applies to continuing treatment. No one thinks that once someone is in remission they’re good for life. No one says, “Oh, now that you’ve learned not to have cancer, you’re good. And if you let yourself get cancer again, you can probably just do whatever you did last time and it’ll be just fine.” Yet, these types of statements are made to individuals suffering from mental health issues all the time.
Depression can be dangerous and even fatal if left untreated. The above incorrect statements about treatment for mental health are not only often heard from well-meaning friends or family members, but are also often heard from those suffering themselves. There’s a voice inside your head whispering all of those things to you and more. It says, “This medicine is taking money away from your family.” “This medicine is making you tired and fat.” “This medicine is for people with real problems, not just people who feel sad. Get over yourself. You can’t die from being sad.”
You can die from being sad. It happens every day. People in the public eye can fall victim to depression’s lies, just like you and me. We see the death of people like Robin Williams, and think, “How could he have killed himself? He had everything!” He didn’t have everything. He didn’t have a cure for his illness, his real illness. An illness that told him that he was better off dead.
If you say you’re fine, but you aren’t, please reach out. Talking to a friend might help. Talking to a stranger at a crisis help line can help. Often, therapy with doctors can help. Just as there’s nothing wrong with getting sick, there’s nothing wrong with struggling with depression. You’re only wrong if you refuse to try and get better. You’re only wrong if you let yourself believe depression’s lies.
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.