Comment: The secret life of depression

(AAP)

When I experienced major depression after a seven-year relationship ended, I discovered an underground world of fellow sufferers.

Close friends who had never given an inkling they suffered from the disease suddenly fessed up to secret stashes of anti-depressant medication. I wondered why people who had shared such intimate revelations as their child abuse had never been able to tell me about their depression.

Those were the days I’d turn up to TAFE late, disheveled, drunk and openly apologetic about my inability to cope with the fact my partner had moved on with someone better.

Along with a small measure of sympathy, I became a magnet for the confessions others felt too dark to share publicly.

So, ironically, my own personal dark ages involved listening to those desperate to divulge without being judged, absolving others of the burden of secret depression.

Admitting to depression can be social and fiscal suicide. If you doubt this, try it - at the next job interview, dinner party or on a date.

Nearly one in every four Australians felt depression was a sign of personal weakness and would not employ a person with depression, according to a 2006 study. One in five said they wouldn’t tell anyone if they had depression.

At work, I never made the mistake of revealing my depression. I had rent to pay, a mortgage on an investment property, a car. I might have been depressed, but that didn’t mean I was stupid.

Although I did wonder how anyone could have been fooled by my unexplained absences and the months spent staring dismally at my computer screen. When I look back on it, I realise it was a tacit agreement between my employer, colleagues and me that work is not the place to air one’s personal problems.

Considering depression has probably been around since Adam and Eve, and is as common as bat poo, what is it about the black mood that makes it so taboo?

Perhaps the stigma surrounding depression comes from its association with psychiatry and lunacy.

Prior to the movie the Silver Linings Playbook, the Hollywood image of the mentally ill individual conjured someone dosed up and dangerous, a bit unpredictable and likely to be immoral - not exactly someone you’d invite out for a drink.

This picture of the depressed is as far fetched as it gets. Depression isn’t a static condition, but is experienced in shades of grey and ups and downs, with a lot more downs than ups.

In reality, depressed people are boringly ordinary. They make jokes, they go to plays, they work, study and drop their kids off at school. On top of all that, they struggle privately with their depression.

Each year there are around one million Australians suffering from depression according to Beyond Blue figures, which makes it pretty normal in an unhealthy kind of way. Kind of like high cholesterol, except you can talk about that.

It seems if you are young, attractive or successful you can’t be depressed. Thus, in my early thirties, unable to get help because I didn’t’ fit the stereotype, I found myself attending a private depression group in North Sydney. All of us had a job, but no one – not the IT guy nor the middle-aged psychologist – had told their work about their depression. Some of us had not even told our families about our dirty little secret.

According to an Australian National University study, 69 per cent of Australians said they wouldn’t vote for a politician with depression. Twenty-one per cent were unwilling to work with, and 28 per cent unwilling to marry into the family of someone with depression. 

Unsurprisingly then, those with depression predominantly view the ability to conceal their health issue as a positive, a fact observed by a 2009 ANU study. Participants in the study commonly reported being blamed for their depression, viewed as a threat and socially repelled.

Despite greater community awareness and understanding of depression, stigma surrounding the illness hasn’t reduced.

In an age when everything is up for discussion on social media, I am yet to see anyone post publicly about their depression. For that to happen, our view of depression needs to evolve. In reality, rather than a bizarre anomaly, suffering is inseparable from life.

Great struggle and challenge often produce dynamism, creativity and compassion. Depression can be a catalyst for change, reflection and transforming our inner and outer lives.

Too often we silence those who are suffering with unhelpful comments, inadvertently contributing to the tendency for people to keep their problems to themselves.This can have tragic results.

A depressed man in his thirties once tried to open up to me. Suffocated by my own pain, I was unable to engage. I wish I had.

A week later he jumped in front of a truck.  

 

* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.

 

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