Content warning: suicide and depression
People with apparent mental illnesses don’t tend to fake being sick. There’s nothing glamorous and appealing about no longer having enough willpower to get out of bed. There’s nothing sexy about presenting as so burned out you can’t function. Brain fogs, loss of executive function and despair don’t get much done. Let people see you’re struggling and all too often some bright spark will come round to tell you to stop making a fuss, insisting that the problem is your attitude and not whatever put you on your knees in the first place.
Most likely it was stress, with poverty and overwork the most likely candidates for having made you sick. It might also be pain – people dealing with long term pain and illness often end up depressed because those things are bloody awful to live with. Societal breakdown, injustice, extinction grief and distress caused by climate chaos are increasingly factors as well.
Depressed people are most usually depressed for reasons, and those reasons lack for simple solutions. Anyone whose ‘solution’ for depression has taken them but a moment’s thought doesn’t actually understand what depression is and has nothing useful to offer the rest of us.
What depressed people often do really well, is fake being ok. Think of the number of celebrities who seemed fine from the outside, but who have taken their own lives. Suicides often come as a surprise to those closest to the person who opts out. Depressed people often pretend to be just fine, so as not to worry or inconvenience anyone else. Suicide particularly affects men, and is the number one killer of men under 45 in the UK. A culture of faking being ok clearly isn’t helping with this. Suicide prevention groups encourage people to talk and seek help. For that to even be possible, afflicted people need to feel safe when speaking about depression.
We can all contribute to creating an environment in which people feel able to talk about mental illness, and feel able to seek help. We can do this by not minimising or dismissing other people’s distress, as the most basic level of engagement with the issue. Kindness, active listening and practical support all help. Ultimately to fix a lot of this we’re going to have to dismantle the harmful and oppressive structures that make people so sick in the first place – the current levels of mental health crisis have everything to do with capitalism and colonialism. Whatever resistance we can bring to bear around any of this all helps.
We can all contribute to deconstructing the shame and stigma around mental illness. It’s not a sign of weakness or a moral failing to experience mental illness, its a consequence of being pushed beyond breaking point. As someone who suffers, I try to challenge the stigma by talking about my experiences, and by supporting friends who are also struggling. Where I have the stamina, I will actively challenge anyone who thinks that piling on the hurt and shame is a clever response. Calling out individuals who add to the stigmatising of mental illness can be unpleasant, and I don’t recommend it if you’re feeling vulnerable. Sometimes it is best to just back away quietly. Speaking up when there isn’t conflict under way is also worth doing. The more we talk about this sort of thing, the more people will feel equipped to push back against stigma when they do encounter it.