Depression affects many adults in Britain – so why is it a taboo subject?
“Just snap out of it Mam!”
Every time I hear these words I am transported back to my 15-year-old self, stood looking at my Mam, whose vacant face tells me I’m not going to get an answer for the question I’m asking her.
Being a teenager at the time, I didn’t know who had taken my strong-willed mother and left an empty shell in her place. She put a new meaning to the phrase ‘the lights are on but nobody’s home’ and as anyone looking back on their teenage years will know, patience and understanding come with age.
But now that I’ve matured, those words continue to haunt me and I still feel that pang of guilt after I first said them.
The truth is my mother has depression. She’s had it for nearly ten years and it was triggered by the death of my great grandmother in 2003.
These were the only facts I had for a long time and for anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, they will tell you it is a very dark place.
But what happens when you stay there? When you can’t just ‘snap out of it’, when society clicks its fingers?
I don’t have an answer for these questions and I don’t think my Mam will ever have them either but as a teenager I didn’t understand why my Mam couldn’t just get back to ‘normal’.
It seems this is the magic word when talking about any illness.
‘Normal’ is what everyone in society wants to be and although we might celebrate outrageous differences in celebrities, secretly I believe the majority of us fear being labelled as different.
I can say this because I was an obese ginger child so you can imagine what my school days were like and I believe it is the same when it comes to health issues.
When you’re ill everyone concentrates on trying to ‘get you back to normal’ or make life ‘as normal as possible’ but this is harder to do with a mental illness because there is no quick fix. For some it is a life-long condition; a constant battle with the pill-box on a daily basis.
I would often find myself saying to my friends that my Mam had gotten depression but then feeling like I had to correct myself.
Somehow she didn’t apply to all of the normal well-wishing gestures. She didn’t have a ‘physical’ disease; something you could see and treat. Instead people shied away from her and a sea of silence descended whenever the ‘dirty’ D word was mentioned. It was a taboo subject, quietly ignored by everyone we knew.
And I suppose that was the crux of my teenage self’s confusion: I didn’t understand it because no-one had ever sat me down and explained what it meant for my Mam or us as a family.
And then came the day when I couldn’t pretend to ignore it anymore. In 2005 she was quietly forced out of the backdoor from her job as a lifeguard because they said she was not fit to work. Society was giving up on her, making her feel worthless but paranoid that everyone knew at the same time.
For those of you who have never been affected by depression my ‘tale’ may seem like a rather dramatic one, but with one in every ten adults in Britain currently suffering from depression, and nearly nine out of ten reporting stigma because of it, it is a reality that we can no longer ignore. I have to ask: why is depression such a taboo subject?
Time to Change is the UK’s biggest programme to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness and helped me answer this question. They explained that despite being very common, depression is still a taboo subject and not being able to talk about it makes the illness, which is very isolating to begin with, even worse.
They also confirmed my experiences by explaining how some people have deep routed preconceptions about mental illness, stating that: “some people still think depression means you are weak or can’t cope; that you should just pull yourself together; or question what someone who on the surface seems to have a good life can have to be depressed about.”
They also said that “with physical illnesses people don’t usually feel a sense of shame or stigma, and can expect understanding and support from those around them. You would probably receive get well soon cards if you had a broken leg – but are less likely to if you are off work with depression!”
I couldn’t have put this better myself. It brings back the age-old saying (and excuse my pun) ‘out of sight out of mind’. Sometimes I think this is hard to believe, especially in our modern age of ‘equality’ and ‘understanding’. Yet unfortunately it seems we still need a physical sign to tell us that someone is ill and therefore ‘act accordingly’.
Time to Change also said that mental health problems are deeply misunderstood and that this has never been addressed on a national scale until recently. Ask yourself: when was the last time you saw an advert for mental illnesses in comparison for physical one?
As they put it: “mental illness is an invisible illness, unlike many physical illnesses. Often it doesn’t look as though there’s anything wrong. The stigma that people face means that they don’t speak out about their experiences and so the cycle of misunderstanding continues.”
In fact, Time to Change found that 60% of people said that that stigma and discrimination can be worse than the actual symptoms of their mental illness itself. I have seen first-hand what this anxiety of ‘what people might think’ can do, and yet the only way to solve it is to break these barriers and raise awareness. As Time to Change put it, we need to “remove the taboo around the subject”.
And the ultimate irony? I almost didn’t want my Mam to know I was writing this in case I made her panic about what people would think of her.
When I told her on the phone I almost succumbed to the unspoken plea for me to write about something else. The truth is my Mam will probably still have depression this time next year and probably for the next ten years after that. But I know that continuing the circle of silence will only hinder the progress that charities like Time to Change have fought so hard to make.
So what can you do? Help break the silence surrounding depression and start talking to one another! After all, with one in ten adults having depression there might be someone suffering closer than you think.
Follow us on @SW_Londoner