“Get over it.” This is one of the most frustrating responses I get during a bout of depression. Telling someone to “get over it” is like telling someone with broken legs to run a marathon. It defies common sense as depression affects the brain’s ability to think clearly in the first place. Others recommend going for a run or to the gym. If it were that simple, I would have already done that. I know that exercise helps with depression, but when just getting out of bed takes monumental effort, there isn’t much energy left for lacing up.
I don’t blame people who give this advice–in fact, I used to be one of them. I could never have realized the debilitating effects of depression until I experienced them firsthand. However, telling someone who is depressed to just “tough it out” or “snap out of it” points to a profound ignorance about mental health. No one would tell someone with cancer to just “deal with it” (nor should they), but depression is a life-threatening disease as well. Contrary to popular belief, depression is not just feeling tired or sad and upset over a recent loss. It is a serious life-long illness that requires treatment and while it can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes, there is no cure.
Sadly, there are many factors that prevent people from seeking help for a mental health condition. Perhaps the biggest deterrent is the stigma associated with mental illness. It seems mental illness only gets attention when some “crazy” person goes on a shooting rampage or a celebrity suffers a mental breakdown or commits suicide? This type of attention sensationalizes mental illness, instills fear, and attributes it to “the others”–often, the rich and famous or the truly criminal or deranged. It only perpetuates the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding mental illness. Most mentally ill people do not commit crimes and should not be feared. Furthermore, mental illness affects people of all ages, races, genders, social classes, professions, etc. In fact, the National Institute of Health indicates that mental illness afflicts one in five American adults in any given year, and yet it remains a taboo and often misunderstood subject (2018).
Even though mental illness can be caused by environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination, many view those with mental health conditions as “weak” or “lazy” or somehow at fault. Some of my own family members and friends have simply rolled their eyes at my pain and chalked it up to my being “dramatic” or “attention-seeking.” So, not only is someone with mental illness feared, he or she is further burdened with additional labels and made to feel “guilty,” “lazy,” or “ridiculous.” It is no surprise that so many people with mental illness feel rejected or ostracized, which only enhances isolation and feelings of worthlessness. When someone is seriously ill, people often rush to his or her aid delivering meals, sending flowers and cards, visiting them, and/or helping with household tasks or children. Cancer survivors are rightfully referred to as “warriors,” “survivors,” and “heroes.” But even though those with mental illness suffer, fight, and overcome tremendous battles as well, they are seldom honored and celebrated. Many survivors of serious health conditions say they could not have done it without the support of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, yet many with mental illness find themselves with little support and few allies.
The shame and stigma with mental illness is so prevalent that some would rather suffer in silence (or even end their lives) than admit they have a mental disorder and seek help. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youths 10-24 and these rates are only rising (NAMI, 2018). Adolescents suffering from clinical depression increased by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014 (John Hopkins Health Review, 2017). Approximately 11 million U.S. adults aged 18 or older had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment. (NIH, 2017). Clearly these statistics indicate a dire need for mental health intervention, yet there remains a significant deficit in providers and insurance coverage. Mental health programs continue to be cut or insufficiently funded. Research shows that nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness did not receive treatment (NAMI, 2018). With the lack of accessible treatment and the cost of comprehensive mental health care, on top of the stigma, it is not surprising that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide (World Health Organization, 2017).
With limited access to care, those with mental illness often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. In fact, 10.2 million adults have co-occuring mental health and addiction disorders (NAMI, 2018). Sadly, drugs and alcohol can be quicker and easier to obtain than an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist. Furthermore, adding drugs and alcohol to mental illness compounds an already precarious situation. Mental illness can even be triggered by the use of drugs and alcohol. Like most illnesses, early intervention is key and yet little is being done with regards to mental illness other than sensational news coverage and punitive measures. There are valiant community efforts, support groups, dedicated volunteers, and a variety of helpful services and programs, but they are often limited in size and finances.
When will those with mental illness be treated with the dignity they deserve and not forced into silence and shame? When will mental health coverage and the number of providers and services meet the need? There is no simple solution, but each step, no matter how small, makes a difference. Each donation to mental health organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), each time we speak out for those who cannot or lend a hand or call a friend, we are one step closer to change.
We never know who might be affected. It could be a family member you haven’t heard from in awhile, or a friend who suddenly stops coming to social events or a colleague who is out on a “medical leave.” It might be a child who smiles and seems to have it all, but self-harms behind closed doors. Now is the time to speak out, to share stories, to withhold judgment, to offer support, to seek treatment, to break down the wall of stigma before it takes the life of someone you know and love.