If I could “shake off” depression, and especially suicidal ideation, I think I would’ve done that years ago instead of having to finally get over my fears, and the stigma, of asking for and accepting anti-depressant medication, and going to individual therapy.
Perhaps the most persistent idea about mental illnesses and our mental health is that we can merely “shake it off.” If we are “feeling” “depressed,” well, shake it off? I put “feeling” and “depressed” in scare quotes because obviously, the underlying belief is that mental illness itself isn’t true or real in the way so-called physical pain is. Because the only way to shake something like mental illness off is if it’s only a figment of your imagination. If you can shake this figment off, you’ll be okay. You’ll be better.
Folks. I can’t be more clear than this: The reason I suffered and wanted to kill myself for the better part of six years is because I thought I could shake it off. The absolute most corrosive idea I’ve ever held is thinking I can outthink depression and suicidal ideation.
That I am not someone who succumbs to such mental illness or stigma. That I can “rise above” such things. That I can outthink it. It’s hubris, plain and simple. And such hubris almost meant my death.
No. I can’t. And such thinking almost killed me, and if I’m being honest, still can. Despite the antidepressants and the therapy I’ve undergone, I wouldn’t be so arrogant to think I’m now immune to it. If I was susceptible to it before, maybe I still am, as an alcoholic always has the looming threat of “falling off the wagon.”
Stigma is a helluva thing. I honestly can’t stress it enough. I thought I was smarter than it. Better educated than it. To use the philanthropic buzzword, better “aware” than others about it.
It. Does. Not. Matter.
I cannot rise above it. The most humbling statement I can ever give you: I am not that strong.
I am not that strong.
I am not strong strong enough to rise about that stigma. I’m not smart enough. I’m not wise enough. I just can’t do it.
And thinking I could, almost, and again, still could, kill me.
If there’s anything I could impart on people trying to understand mental illness it is that fact — that power of stigma, not even discussing the fact of the illness itself, which could be an entire blog post (as I’ve done), to kill people, as it’s surely done for a long time.
So, that’s the two-front battle: Battling the stigma to even confront the reality of mental illness and battling the mental illness itself. It’s a two-front war, which kills people and could (and again, still may) kill me.
I don’t know how else to stress the seriousness of it.
But also, I don’t know how my words can dissuade someone of perpetuating the stigma. That it’s merely a matter of “shaking it off.” I’ve tried words. I’ve tried actions! I don’t know what else to do with that two-front war. Perhaps being more direct than I already have?
One final element of the stigma I will address is this idea of the tragedy Olympics. Whichever form it takes, even among romantic relationships — “Well, my day was particularly bad because XXX, so, way more than yours!” — you know what I mean. The most popular form this takes is in the meme about “first country problems.” Obviously, the funny form of the meme is about rather trivial problems, but the stigma part of it, which associates with “shake it off” when it comes to depression, is this idea that, why can I feel sad?
I am a white person. I am a male. I live in the United States. I’m abled. Those four facts alone give me an advantage and a privilege over not just a good chunk of residents within the United States, but quite literally billions of people. Billions is no exaggeration. That’s what it means to be a resident of the United States.
But unfortunately, I can’t help the fact of mental illness and depression. It does not care about my skin color. My status. My residency. Or how well-abled my body may be. Or my overall privilege. It cares about devouring my brain until I die.
That’s the reason depression killed Robin Williams and the poor kid in Ethiopia.
To put a finer point in it, that I’m more privileged than the kid in Ethiopia is, doesn’t mean depression can’t kill me the same way cancer might kill the Ethiopian kid.