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We often complain about physical ailments. These ailments can vary from severe conditions such as a failing kidney that needs to be removed, to everyday inconveniences such as a cold, a fever, or diarrhoea. Sure, one physical ailment might become a conversation topic more easily than the other, but barely anybody would feel extremely uncomfortable if one of the previously mentioned diseases were to come up in conversation. Yet once mental health is mentioned, and clinical depression in particular, the atmosphere grows considerably tense: people no longer know what to say, avoid eye contact and try to change the subject as soon as they can. The person who has finally gathered their strength to discuss their mental state with the people they trust, then understands that their conversational partners apparently find it harder than them to talk about such a sensitive and personal topic. Similar reactions from the outside world are often harmful to somebody suffering from depression, because how are they supposed to heal from a condition to which talking is one of the best remedies if nobody seems to be willing to talk about it?
It’s all in your head
Depression is a growing problem which is increasingly affecting young people. The World Health Organisation has reported that currently 300 million people are suffering from depression worldwide, with 18 to 25-year-olds being the largest group of people affected. On top of that, suicide is the second biggest cause of death among young people, right after road accidents. The stigma attached to depression and mental health in general has created a false notion that depression is nothing but a prolonged feeling of sadness sustained by the person suffering from it because they refuse to get better. After all, they stay in bed all day, smile considerably less and avoid social contact. If you are depressed and want to get better, you should just make the necessary changes to your behaviour and your attitude, people say. Go outside, smile and hang out with friends. That’s not so hard now, is it?
However, a prolonged feeling of sadness is a gross oversimplification of what a complex brain disorder like depression actually entails. The list of possible causes is inexhaustive and significantly divergent: hereditary factors, unprocessed trauma, stressful events, seasonal factors … What exactly induces clinical depression is not always clear, but research has shown that there is consistently an imbalance in the brain. A depressed person’s neuroreceptors communicate with a noticeably decreased number of neurotransmitters responsible for emotion regulation. That explains why somebody with depression typically feels unhappy – often described as a feeling of emptiness inside – and why other common symptoms appear, including insomnia, fatigue, a loss of appetite, indifference to things that used to be interesting, concentration problems, et cetera.
This means that mental illness involves physical abnormalities as well. Much as with kidney failure, the brain is also an organ that can malfunction. But while a failing kidney can be transplanted if deemed necessary, or in the best case scenario can just be treated with medication, this is not true for your brain. Sure, there are antidepressants which restore the imbalance of neurotransmitters, but as long as the depression itself is not cured, the patient will remain dependent on their medication. Talking is still the most effective cure, preferably as often and as regularly as possible. It is for that reason that the mental health taboo must be broken, because if a depressed person cannot talk about their mental state their depression will never be cured nor eased.
You’re just looking for attention
Stigma surrounding depression needs to be broken not only because talking is the most effective cure in the long run, but also because it would make the numerous misconceptions regarding the mental disorder gradually disappear. I also used to have a disappointing number of wrong ideas about what it meant to be clinically depressed. I considered it a mental illness that only emotionally weak people developed, people who barely had any willpower and remained unhappy for so long precisely because of that supposed lack of willpower. In other words, they refused to make the necessary efforts to get better. My false ideas obviously changed quickly once I had become depressed myself and was living without any hope to get better for months on end. It had suddenly become an impossible task to prepare food, do my laundry, clean my room or go to lectures – if I even managed to leave my bed before five in the afternoon. Now I know very well that depression is a complex mental disorder which can affect anybody, no matter how strong a person might be mentally. It is just a pity that I had to become depressed myself first in order to form a nuanced understanding of it.
In fact, a depressed person would want nothing more than to get better, but simply does not know how they should achieve that or even has strong doubts that they ever will be able to improve their mental health. Imagine that one day, you become unable to smile. You can still force yourself to lift the corners of your mouth so that the outside world might believe that you are happy, but you do not feel happy yourself, without really knowing why. You do remember how it feels to be able to genuinely smile and be actually happy, but it feels as though you have forgotten how to feel that way again. You can try as much as you want, that feeling of happiness you so desire just will not come back. And the harder you try, the more frustrated and tired your efforts leave you. So eventually you just stop exhausting yourself and you accept that you may never find happiness again and that your future looks hopeless.
If depression were not such a taboo subject, more people would be able to imagine in a relatively accurate way what a depressed person is going through and how they can be helped. Misconceptions would fade or, if this were a utopia, disappear. Outsiders would still think people suffering from depression talk about their disorder for attention, but they would understand that these people ask for attention because they want to be helped and because they want to emphasise the severity of a mental illness that annually costs the lives of 800,000 individuals worldwide. So yes, people with depression do want attention, but not for the reasons that are popularly believed.
Loads of other people are here for you
Fortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health is slowly fading as public awareness is increasing thanks to a number of important initiatives. As such, the Mental Health Foundation annually organises a Mental Health Awareness Week, which is dedicated to a different mental health issue every year. By setting up fundraising campaigns and spreading messages of support and understanding across the globe, the Mental Health Foundation makes more people familiar with the subject of mental health. It is important for anybody who is suffering from a mental health condition to know that the general public cares about mental health issues, but especially for young people since it allows them to both realise that there are people who take their situation seriously and see that other people exist who go through the same issues they do. A teenage brain does not work in the same way of an adult’s. Teenagers generally find it harder to put things into perspective, making them more likely to believe that their problems are permanent and not shared by others. By raising awareness, these false assumptions will slowly fade and young people will gradually find the ability to put their mental health issues into perspective, which will eventually help with their recovery.
The media are also doing their part to destigmatise mental health and sometimes use humour for that. In the respectively American and Australian dramedies Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Please Like Me, mental health issues play a major role. Topics such as depression and suicide are tackled with humour, but at the same time with an admirable amount of realism and nuance. Similarly, depression and suicide are essential themes in the controversial teen drama 13 Reasons Why. Although the approach the series takes may be unrealistically overdramatic, the show has induced a fair number of families to have serious conversations about mental health. So while the Netflix series may have become a target of justified and unjustified criticism, it has still achieved its goal by initiating vital conversations.
I am here for you
The amount of progress we as a society have made so far is a great deal compared to how things used to be, but we still have an incredibly long way to go. Growing media coverage is an important step, but will not suffice to break the taboo once and for all. We have to act more personally when stimulating people to have conversations about mental health. We can do that by confronting people with non-fictional stories at different ages and within different sectors of our society. We have to host workshops in private companies, deliver lectures at universities and organise educational events in schools. These initiatives should underline that depression is not merely a prolonged feeling of sadness, but a severe mental disorder that is not easily cured.
Furthermore, we need to emphasise the importance of gratifying and effective conversations to people suffering from depression. As stated before, talking is the most effective cure in the long run, provided that the communication is right. Obviously, aggressive accusations like ‘You’re just looking for attention,’ have a damaging effect on a depressed person. But well-intended encouragements such as ‘Smile,’ are also anything but effective, because if you are depressed, being able to smile is all you want in life. However, given that it feels so impossible to do such a simple thing as smiling, you are just constantly reminded of how unhappy you actually are and then your mental state only gets worse. On top of that, when a depressed person is told that they should smile more, it will not take long for them to believe that their unhappiness is a bother to other people. This may result in social isolation, which will not particularly improve the depressed person’s mental health either. Finally, messages of comfort should always be as personal as possible. When somebody with depression insinuates that they feel worthless, do not say something along the lines of: ‘There are so many people that care about you.’ Instead, say: ‘You are important to me.’ That sounds much more sincere and the other person will find a great deal of comfort in it.
It is important to destigmatise mental health, since it will lead to more awareness and a better understanding of the topic, allowing more depressed people to open up about it and as such, facilitate their recovery. Furthermore, it will make it easier to go look for professional help as well, which also carries a serious social stigma. Yet, about ten per cent of the Western population have admitted to seeing a therapist, eighty per cent of whom confirming its effectiveness. If society makes more efforts to break the mental health taboo, more people will realise the success of therapy and suicide rates will eventually drop significantly because patients will be able to put their problems into perspective precisely thanks to therapy. The destigmatisation of mental health is literally a matter of life and death. Help break the taboo and save lives. Please.