One of the most difficult things about mental health issues is the stigma society attaches to it. As soon as you admit you aren’t “normal” people start to fall away from your life. Even though 10% of Americans take anti-depressants, we still feel the need to hide it from the majority of people in our lives.
Some of the stigma is how much our society values “normalcy,” even though no one can provide an exact definition of what normal life looks like. Facebook, Twitter, and countless other social media sites allow us to pretend our lives are picture perfect, further increasing the divide between actual lives and perceived normalcy.
I feel no compunctions sharing a kidney infection on Facebook, but have second thoughts about sharing my apathy. Each blog post I write is shared on Facebook; my last post almost didn’t get shared because it’s about my mental health. Even though I am fairly open about my past and mental health issues, I still hesitated because not everyone on my FB friends list is aware.
In my personal life, this was proven to me when I missed work due to mental health issues a few months ago. It resulted in the first anti-depressant prescription I actually filled, but I told everyone at work I had been given a prescription and was doing better. No other details provided. Yet when I got my kidney infection, I wasn’t worried about sharing what was wrong, or what I’d been prescribed. This circumspect approach to dealing with mental as opposed to physical ailments was a perfect reminder to me of how differently our society forces us to handle these affairs.
Several years ago I took a “Medical Anthropology” class in college. One of the points my professor brought up repeatedly was the stigma attached to mental health in the USA. In South America, depression is viewed as a community problem. If a healer diagnoses depression (a different term is used), the prescription involves an herbal tea prepared and served by another person, who is required to sit and chat for the 15-30 minutes it takes to drink the pot of tea.
Depression is very isolating. Symptoms of depression include reduced interest in all activities, so individuals tend to self isolate. In the USA, add in the pressure of not letting anyone see how depressed you are, and any attempts to socialize become overwhelming. Some say “fake it ’til you make it!” As someone who does a lot of faking it, I can put on a happy face, sound excited about personal projects, and seem like a completely normal person on social media and in person. In reality, I feel even more drained, depressed, and exhausted at the end of the day.
Some of the most helpful moments for me are when someone just listens, or sits with me, or talks to me without expecting me to pretend I’m OK and happy. Listening without judgment and really hearing someone are the most helpful things you can do.