Blog: The prejudice making depression a stigma

(AP Photo/Dan Steinberg) ENGEMN00120110112143705
(AP Photo/Dan Steinberg) ENGEMN00120110112143705

Observer chief reporter Karen Dunn writes about the prejudices facing people with mental health problems.

If one good thing comes out of the death of Robin Williams it will be the focus placed on the seriousness of mental illness.

Alongside all the tributes to the unforgettably wonderful comedian, actor and writer were the odd comments from people calling him selfish for taking his own life. They were usually coupled with people who thought the answer to depression was to “pull yourself together”.

Anyone who has been through depression or any other mental health problem – and figures show one in four of us have done just that – will know this opinion is as pointless and misguided as telling some one who has a compound fracture of the leg to “run it off”.

Depression is a spiteful interloper in your life and your sense of self-worth. There are often no reasons for it to strike but it does – and when it does it is crippling.

Your ability to think logically is crushed and the knowledge you have friends and family to support you is lost.

It is choking hopelessness. It is fear and despair. And, at its very worse, it is the unwavering knowledge the world would be a better place without you – not an opinion, not an understanding, not a theory, but a fact. No one would miss you and things would be easier for your family and friends once they no longer had you to worry about.

It’s hard to describe how depression starts. It’s hard for people to understand that you slept the day away not because you were being lazy but because not feeling anything was as close to a good day as you could hope to achieve.

Depression is no respecter of age, gender, race or social status – the Royal Family is as likely to be affected as the people at a shelter for the homeless.

There are those who bleat “oh, what have you got to be depressed about” and they are the people who have made the condition a stigma, almost taboo, something to be ashamed of rather than confronted.

And this is where the danger lies, because some one who is mentally ill is likely to already be convinced of their own worthlessness and the hopelessness of their life. Having some one belittle the way they are feeling is beyond cruel.

Figures from the Mental Health Foundation show the UK has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe, at 400 per 100,000 population. And people with current mental health problems are 20 times more likely to report having harmed themselves in the past.

In June, the Royal College of Psychiatrists described mental health services in England as “a car crash” and accused the Government of not taking the problem seriously; while deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said there was “too much prejudice, too much discrimination” around the issue.

They were both right.

Perhaps it will take the death of one man, loved by millions, to make the men and women in power realise mental health care is something which needs to be taken as seriously as cancer care.

Perhaps it will take the death of one of the funniest men this world has ever seen to make people realise depression is not embarrassing, is not a failure. It is an illness.

And those suffering under its weight deserve the same treatment, understanding and respect as everyone else.

For advice and information about mental health problems, log on to MIND.

For community wellbeing services in Crawley and Mid Sussex log on to Sussex Oakleaf or call 01293 534782 or 01444 416391.

Do not be afraid to go to your GP for help.