Friday, January 28, 2011

The Stigma Within Us


During my sophomore year as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley I was diagnosed with depression. What my therapist meant was that I had clinical depression, or major depressive disorder (MDD)the mental illness that is characterized by an inability to enjoy life; including eating, exercise, social interaction or sex; feelings of worthlessness, isolation, and hopelessness. That's what I had. I felt hopeless, worthless, and utterly alone—feelings I never had before to that intensity—and I felt ashamed for feeling this way.
My mind brought up feelings from the deep recesses of my mindthe dark, secluded corners that are inaccessible and even dangerous for our conscious minds to see. I had feelings that I never had before—for which there are no namesand I did not even suspect that these feelings were possible. As I said before, I did not enjoy life, had frequent crying spells, and felt guilty about it. Everyone around me seemed so happy, and I did not want to be a burden on my friends and family, so I did not tell anyone that I had depression. This state was wholly alien to me, and I knew I was in uncharted waters, and yet I was afraid to ask for help. I just ignored it and hoped for it to go away. Had mental illness and depression been an open subject, where everyone knew what it is and how to treat it, I might not have felt the way I did and would have reached out for help sooner.
It all started at the end of my freshman year at Cal. I lost my motivation to do homework, I could not pay attention in class, and I stopped attending my classes altogether. Any work just felt so meaningless. Although I remember that I did reach out to two of my friends, who took the time to chat with me. But even though it felt good to relate what I was feeling to another human being, my friends did not suspect that anything was seriously wrong. But how could they, at a time when mental illness is such a sensitive topic that virtually nobody talks about it and the media avoids it? It was hard for me to acknowledge that what I was experiencing was anxiety and depression. I did not even consider that I was in the early stages of depression, but sensing that something was wrong, I scheduled to see a counselor at the Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) at the University Health Services. But even after I was diagnosed I denied this fact for a very long time.
After I reached my six-session semester limit, my therapist, who also worked at other Universities, told meexplaining the high demand for counseling at the Universitythat depression is an “epidemic” at Cal. This is no surprise, considering that I led the typical freshman lifestyle: I ate whatever and whenever I pleased, I didn’t exercise, I pulled all-nighters almost weekly, and I was under the stresses of adjusting to new academic demands and a new setting, while being away from home for the first time. Considering that one of my classes was the size of my whole high school, Cal can be an overwhelming, alienating place. Therefore, like many students do when they first come to Cal, I had difficulty adjusting and feeling a sense of belonging.
Although people may feel grief, stress, and sad due to life's changes, not everyone becomes clinically depressed. The lifetime prevalence of major depressive episode is 17% in the US (or 1 in 6), and 1 in 15 have it at any given year, with varying severity. The term "depression" is highly misunderstood because it is ambiguous. When people say they are depressed they usually refer to having low mood or a bad day. However, in a major depressive episode, low mood is but one of dozens debilitating symptoms. Depression may also refer to an umbrella term for any or all of the mood disorders (Major depressive disorder, Dysthymia, Bipolar disorder, and substance induced mood disorders). There is usually no clear cause of MDDsuch neat logic and compartmentalization are not how the human mind and depression work. Surely, my genes, poor lifestyle and perpetual stress contributed to me having depression, but the exact pathways remain a mystery in the medical field. Almost one in seven college students nationwide have been diagnosed with depression in their lifetime. Depression is also the leading cause of disability worldwide, and yet the subject remains taboo! A moment's reflection would reveal that this is an outrage. How many people with depression do you know?.. My guess is not many. So if depression is an “epidemic” on campuses across the U.S., and especially at Cal, why do so few people know about it and why did I feel so stigmatized?
To a large extent, the stigma is due to our misunderstanding of mental illness. Partly because its severity is inaccessible to someone who has not experienced it, and partly because this topic is avoided in conversation and the media. Media only mentions mental illness (if at all) when it reaches the extreme, such as in the cases of a school shooting or a suicide. This gives the public an image of the mentally ill as being a threat to society who should be locked away in an asylum. Even mentioning—much less admitting to having—a mental illness leads most people to discomfort and avoidance.
So now, the real question is: how do we get rid of the stigma of mental illness that plagues so many students on our campus? How do we accept that depression is a real illness as reality and stop the deplorable shame and unnecessary suffering? How do we recognize that mental illness necessitates the same care as cancer or diabetes or an injury does? Only through talking openly about depression and mental illness, we've got to take any opportunity to talk about it. So let’s start right away and talk to just one personfriend or strangerabout mental illness today.