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On stigma
Posted by lucyd
5th Nov 2015

There is so much in the media right now about the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and all of that exposure is doing great things in reducing the stigma.

As a journalist and as someone who suffers from depression, I'm perhaps more enlightened than some people, but my guess is that just about anyone who pays even the slightest attention to the news could quote the 'one in four' statistic.

All this media coverage is a good thing. And I can see the benefits unfolding even within the circles I move in.

Not a day goes past without someone on my fairly small Facebook friends list posting something about depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

A photo meme that says 'Depression is not a weakness.'

An article that talks about what it feels like to live with anxiety.

A status that asks you to share it if you love someone with depression or anxiety.

Some of these people probably have mental health issues; some are caring for those of us who do; some just want to show their solidarity.

But there's still a clear line in the sand when it comes to stigma.

It's one thing to admit that you suffer from depression.

I'll go as far as saying it's almost fashionable. A concrete example of how you're in touch with your emotions, how you feel things more intensely.

It's another thing altogether when you make the transition from primary services - seeing your GP, maybe being referred for some counselling or CBT - to secondary services.

Once your mental health issue - depression, anxiety, whatever - crosses that threshold, suddenly the stigma is massive.

It's something that struck me yesterday, as I walked into the headquarters of the community mental health team to see my care coordinator.

It's on the outskirts of town; the chances of seeing anyone I knew were slim to none. But the very act of being there marked me out as being Different.

When I first became ill, I was ashamed of being depressed. I looked over my shoulder when I went to the GP; I whispered to the pharmacist when I went to pick up my medication; I told people who asked if I was okay that I was just a bit tired.

I'm a lot more open about my illness now. I'm not ashamed that I have depression, or that I have to take tablets to keep functioning at some level.

But I am - even among my closest friends - ashamed that I'm a mental health patient.

I don't want people seeing me walk into the CMHT building. I use the term 'doctor' when I mean 'psychiatrist.' I refer nebulously to 'being in hospital' when I mean 'being treated for an overdose.'

I don't want them to know that I was admitted to a psychiatric day unit or threatened with a section.

There's a difference, you see. And the difference is that once you get into those secondary services, it makes you seem properly mental. The sort of mental that you see in TV documentaries, in sitcoms, in big screen sociopaths.

I don't feel like that.

I feel like me: a 36-year-old mother who happens to be very unwell. I'm not rocking in the corner, but I'm struggling to get out of bed every day. I'm not foaming at the mouth, but I have had to give up my job.

No one would judge me if I was accessing services for diabetes or epilepsy or cancer.

But even though depression is out in the open these days, everyone would judge me if they knew that I was ill enough to be a proper mental health patient.

I don't feel like the kind of person that people should be scared of, but I know they would be if they knew the whole truth, simply because of the perceptions that surround mental health (once it goes beyond seeing the GP and taking a pill) and its treatment.

The stigma is still there.

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