10 Depression Myths That Fuel Stigma

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Imagine living with an illness that attracts prejudice, discrimination, barriers to treatment, and which negatively affects daily living. For people with a mental illness, this is an all too common experience that results from stigma. Stigma refers to the negative attitudes and behaviors that result from ignorance and fear of people perceived as different.


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The scale of the problem

Stigma around mental health seems all the more surprising when we consider that around 60 million Americans have a mental illness in any given year. Mental Health America points to the fact that major depression is one of the most common forms of mental illness, affecting more than 16 million adults in any year. Yet people with depression are only too aware of the many negative stereotypes associated with the disease.


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Personal and self-stigma common beliefs

A common belief about depression is that it is self-pity. This is an example of personal stigma that is targeted at the sufferer. It suggests that depression is a weakness in personality that can be shaken off with a bit of effort. Sadly, these same beliefs can be ingrained with those who have the disease, a process known as self-stigma: something that affects many men with depression.


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Perceived and structural stigma both cause issues

Stigma becomes more complex when we include perceived stigma. Perceived stigma refers to the beliefs we hold about what other people think (“most people think people with depression are unreliable”). Structural stigma refers to the inbuilt bias that we see in government policy decisions. For example, mental health research funding is typically low, inferring mental health is less worthy.


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Five elements of stigma

One element of stigma is the belief that the person is weak, not ill. A second element is the feeling of shame and embarrassment that follows a disease like depression. It becomes the third element, a guilty secret, which links to discrimination. Here, potential employers may withhold work or promotion. Social distance is the fourth element, in which friends are lost or the person withdraws. Feared dangerousness is the fifth element, reflecting another common belief.


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Everyday language can confirm bias, stigma

The casual manner in which we use language reinforces the negative stereotypes we hold about mental illness. Terms such as “crazy,” “nutty,” “losing my mind,” “psycho,” “insane,” are embedded in our everyday language. Many will make the case that using such language does not reflect their actual attitude toward mental illness. This may well be the case, but such language continues to isolate and marginalise those with a mental illness.


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Find the cause and problem solved

The idea that depression has a cause is quite prevalent. It’s a view that suggests once the cause is identified, it will be possible to solve the problem and depression will go away. One reason for the confusion may be that specific situations can trigger depression. However, depression has its own particular symptoms, and is a disease in its own right.


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But you’re a man!

Even today the myth persists that depression is something that only affects women. In fact men are just as likely to suffer from depression but they cope differently, which can make diagnosis more difficult. Depression goes right to the heart of male identity and the associated stigma is considered to be one of the major factors behind male suicide and reluctance to seek help.


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Antidepressants are the enemy

For some people the mere fact that they take antidepressants daily is a constant and uncomfortable reminder of their mental health status. There is as much stigma attached to antidepressants as there is to depression and taking the pills often becomes a secret. But the latest evidence tells us antidepressants are effective. This should help to reassure people that they are doing the right thing and they should stick with the treatment.


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Sensitivity is required

Whether we can ever solve the problem of stigma is an interesting question. The way things stand, it’s hard to see a future that is truly stigma-free. What we can do is have an awareness of its effects and try to be more sensitive with the language we use about others, as well as ourselves. There’s a 1 in 4 chance that the people we interact with have some form of mental illness. One day, it could very well be you.


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Progress has been made

We have (largely) made progress from the days of viewing mental disorders as a consequence of demonic possession or sins from a previous life. Even Hippocrates in 450 BC attempted to separate superstition and religion from medicine. This shows us progress has been slow, but education remains key to the development of knowledge and the undermining of myths and inaccurate beliefs about mental illnesses such as depression.