How to Deal with the Stigma of Depression
Years after my father died and some time after I was first diagnosed with bipolar, I learned from my mother that my father had secretly sought treatment for depression. Rather than risk being found out by going through his company’s health plan, he paid out of his own pocket.
This would have been back in the early sixties. If I could go back in time to ask him one question, this is what I would ask: What were you most afraid of - the possibility of being fired or the ridicule and shame you might be exposed to?
My guess is the ridicule and shame. Times have changed. Most people “get” depression. A company today is not about to kick you to the curb for getting treatment. Nor is a potential love of your life likely to be turned off by the prospect that you’re on medication. But shame, that’s another thing. It’s universal and timeless. And - unkindest cut of all - it comes from within.
Like many in his generation, my father made the leap from working class to middle class. He worked in an office, became a home-owner, got active in his community, and set aside money so his kids could attend college. I’m sure he was proud of what he had achieved.
When I look at old family photographs - ones from when I was very young - I see this proud father. This was around the time he received a major promotion, which entailed a move to a new house in a nearby town. Life could only get better.
And then along came depression. I can almost hear the conversation going on in his head: You’re weak, you’re an impostor, you have no backbone.
No doubt, his working-class insecurities fed into this: You don’t belong here, you’re in over your head.
Depression does that to you. It robs you of your manhood. This applies to women, as well.
I don’t think my father ever recovered. He received a promotion, but a few years later was back in the same position, in the same office, doomed to waking up in the same Groundhog Day for the remainder of his working life.
I will never know what went on, but Later Dad was not the same Dad to me as Early Dad. It’s not that depression necessarily took him away. It’s that he never had a chance to talk about it with anyone. No one ever gave him permission to come to terms with his condition, or with the personal insecurities that fed into it.
Instead, he was forced to wear a mask and face his inner demons alone. Somewhere along the line, I’m convinced, the burden became too great. It got to him. This, I submit - this sense of inner shame - is the thing we have most to fear from depression. It’s a stigma we inflict upon ourselves. Who knows how his life might have turned out otherwise? Certainly it would have been a whole lot different.
John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.