Dealing with the stigma of mental illness

This is my last post on depression. Fitness posts will return shortly.

Why did I write this series of posts? Not because, as some of my friends evidently think, I need help right now. Not because it’s fun to rehash the lowest days of my life. It’s not because I want people to look at me with pity or despair or any other kind of emotion other than pride. It didn’t actually have anything to do with me at all.

I wrote these posts for two reasons:
1) Isolation
2) Stigma.

Depression is one of the most unbelievably isolating illnesses. So many of us look at depression as a weakness and not an illness. Where our friends with cancer may have been hooked up with a support group, we wouldn’t consider going to a group because we might have to reveal intimate crap about what’s going on in our heads that we don’t even really accept, let alone want to share.

Because depression lies to you, and because you probably don’t know anyone who’s every possibly felt the way you do right now, you may not see group as beneficial. You may not think you’re as crazy as “those other people”. It is beneficial, and you are as crazy as the other people there. It’s other people who are going through the exact same thing as you.

You aren’t alone. I went through this, and I know from some of your emails that you’ve been through the same thing. You are NOT ALONE.

The problem is the stigma that we continue to attach to mental illness. Even when you’re in the depths of despair, it can be difficult to admit you’re sick and need help.

We don’t want people to know we’ve been “weak”. That we’re different. That we’re … you know … different. We don’t recognize the herculean effort required to get better is actually a demonstration of our strength. We don’t understand that the mere act of asking for help and describing the problem is an act of courage. We’re so confused by figuring out who we are afterwards that we forget to celebrate our difference.

I work in an environment that is not very forgiving of mental illness. We pay lip service, but the people who don’t understand mental illness haven’t really done that much to further their understanding. And yet, when people ask me what I think is going to be the major issue facing managers in the near future, I tell them it’s going to be the challenge of managing mental illness in the workplace.

We need to de-stigmatize this range of illnesses. People used to refer to cancer as “the c-word”. That changed with clever marketing and pink ribbons and lots and lots of people getting sick and surviving.

Lots and lots of people are sick with mental illness, and WAY lots of them survive. Twenty percent of Canadians will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime. People. Twenty percent. If each one of those people shared their stories to four other people, then we’d be able to reduce the stigma. If they could point to their productive, full lives and how they contribute to society, we would be able to reduce that stigma.

We have a stigma because people don’t talk about their mental illness. Talk about it. Not just the arty types who are good with words. I need the engineers and the computer types and the executives and type A finance whiz to talk about this stuff. We need you to struggle and find the words that explain to other people what happened to you and how you survived.

This is my story. I am an executive in the Canadian government, I suffer from major depression periodically, I work my ass off, I deliver, I have friends and family and a house and a car and I take amazing vacations. I’m doing my second triathlon in May, I hiked the grand canyon and southern utah and the Camino de Santiago, and I dragon boat. I am a success, and despite all that, I continue to struggle. And if you ever get to meet me, you’re going to think I’m pretty awesome. This is me, sharing my story with you, who I gather number more than four. This is the face of mental illness.