I’ve thought about killing myself.
I even knew how I’d do it. I was going to crash my old white pickup truck into the rock wall at the end of the long stretch of highway near my house. I didn’t do it, and I am alive today because I was able to overcome how I felt about my depression. If you are struggling with depression, I hope this column will help you. If you are not, I hope this column will help you help someone who is.
There are stigmas attached to depression. They press down on your chest and close your throat when you try to talk about it. The only way these debilitating stigmas will disappear is through awareness and empathy. By now you’re aware of depression — this is a call for empathy.
Iris Marion Young, a philosopher who studied discrimination, believes stigmas exist because of differences. She concluded our identity is made of these differences. If you are socially different, there is a stereotype or a stigma about you. Stereotypes are a heuristic that allow people to quickly assess other people. It is widely accepted that these assumptions are frequently wrong and insensitive. Young envisioned justice as preserving difference without stigma. People know the stigma around mental illness is harmful, but it still affects those suffering.
Depression attracts two stigmas. The first is from the public, which is slowly improving, and the second is the crippling self-stigma. Both types are based on incorrect beliefs that those suffering from mental illnesses are erratic, dangerous and weak.
The public stigma associated with mental health has marginally improved as awareness increases. In the United States, 16.1 million or 6.7 percent of adults battle depression, but this does not include those who are undiagnosed. Public opinion is changing about depression. This disease is treatable.
Less is being done to address the stigma that people with depression apply to themselves and how it impacts their identities. Even as it becomes acceptable to talk about mental illness, the self-stigma remains.
“Self-stigma is when you believe you are weak or damaged,” according to Dona Hill Howes, a registered nurse, because you believe the stigma about you. For a long time, I believed I was broken, weak and not deserving of any happiness that entered my life. I cried often.
I have battled depression for four years. Five people outside my family know. I was ashamed. I was scared. I tried to be logical, but logic was no match against self-stigma. Every person who knew about what I am going through was supportive. But for a long time, my brain tricked me. I didn’t suffer because others told me I was weak, I suffered because I was telling myself that.
Self-stigmas cannot be overcome alone. People need empathy. Empathy is more than “putting yourself in their shoes,” according to Lori Gruen, a philosopher of ethics. She explains that empathy is the conscious effort to understand how others “might have come to experience the emotions they have.” People can’t know what others are going through, but empathy is the act of trying to understand.
Raising awareness about mental health addresses public stigma, but self-stigma will continue unless more people reach out to those who are different. I am grateful to my girlfriend, who could have left me when I didn’t have the will to get out of bed. Instead, she empathized and convinced me to get help.
This column is a call for empathy. Reach out to those who are different or struggling. Let them know they will be OK no matter what is going on inside their head. Who knows, you could save the next kid driving an old white pickup truck.
S. Hewson is a college student in Maine. For those who need help: call the Maine Suicide Prevention Program’s toll-free crisis hotline at 1-888-568-1112 or nationwide at 1-800-273-TALK or or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.