I was really moved this morning to read a Facebook status from a friend, Rob M, describing his past (and occasionally present) battle with depression, plus the loss of a dear friend who took his own life some years ago.
He was prompted to share his experiences because today, Australia marks something called ‘R U OK? Day’. It’s organised by the R U OK? Foundation, a non-profit organisation ‘dedicated to encouraging all people to regularly and meaningfully ask, “are you OK?” to those struggling with life.’ It was founded by Gavin Larkin, whose father tragically took his own life in 1995, as a way of honouring his father’s memory and with the aim of protecting other families from the pain that his has suffered.
R U OK? Day is about awareness, and prevention.
Rob describes the problem of seeming ‘happy and confident’ on the outside whilst suffering from depression, and I think this taps into the root of the matter—we are conditioned to believe that we should pull ourselves together, put on a brave face, get on with it. This is how some people end up committing suicide without their loved ones even knowing they were suffering at all.
Rob’s status was, of course, flooded with comments of support, many friends expressing a similar struggle. What struck me were the comments commending his honesty and bravery. He was brave and honest to write it—he says himself how hard it was to write, and how cathartic—but why? Because, despite great progress being made, I think, in society’s awareness of mental health issues in the last decade or so, there is still a not insignificant stigma attached to it. Let’s face it, if he’d gone on Facebook and said ‘I’ve got Type 2 diabetes’, nobody would be saying ‘well done for being honest’, would they? And as long as there is stigma, there will be people who slip through the cracks of life because they have an illness that they’re ashamed of and which therefore goes untreated.
So, in case you’re interested:
I’ve suffered from depression ranging from mild to severe for all of my adult life, and much of my teens. With hindsight, maybe even in childhood I had tendencies. When I was younger I didn’t actually know I was depressed. Maybe if there had been more openness about it then, more people like the R U OK? Foundation promoting awareness, I would have realised that it wasn’t ‘normal’ to cry every day, loathe every facet of myself, find the simplest of tasks utterly impossible, and want to be asleep most of the time. And when I finally thought to see a doctor, maybe I would have insisted on proper treatment instead of being sent to a well-meaning counsellor who told me that I couldn’t really be depressed because I’d ‘managed to get out of bed and come here today’. (¡Estupendo!)
I’ve actually been pretty open about all of this in recent years, determined not to give in to that pesky stigma issue, and indeed hoping to chip away at it in my own small way. Most of my immediate family and close friends are aware—indeed, a great many of them are fellow sufferers. And this is the thing: a whopping 350 million people worldwide are estimated to suffer from depression at any one time. That’s 5% of the population. And if you look at the percentage of people who suffer a period of depression or other mental health issues at some point in their lifetime, that figure goes through the roof.
But despite knowing this, and my resolution to reject the stigma, this is hard to write. Not because I’m ashamed of having a really common illness, but because of a fear of making other people feel uncomfortable. So I’m currently fighting an almost overwhelming compulsion to apologise for that.
Instead, I’ll say thanks for reading, to anyone who’s got this far…and I’ll urge you to do two things:
Firstly, if you’re suffering, don’t do it in silence. You are so, so far from being alone. See a doctor; get some help. Tell a friend, your mum, a colleague, a Samaritan—anyone. It’s an illness like any other and it can affect any one of us. There are loads of ways to treat it: drugs, therapy, mindfulness, meditation…Work with a doctor to find something that works for you.
Secondly, look around. Ask that simple question, and mean it. I’m very lucky to have some wonderful friends and family to talk to, but even so, it’s not always easy to make that first step and say ‘I’m not OK at the moment’. Sometimes people need a bit of a prod.
Go forth and prod.