I have a confession.
I’ve struggled with depression for years. I’ve struggled with anxiety, too. For a long time, I tried not to let the world see my struggle. I let shame seal my mouth shut. But today, I want to begin sharing this part of my story—a part that I’ve desperately wanted to erase from my past but remains there nonetheless. I want to write about mental health because it matters, and I don’t think people talk about it enough.
So here is some truth about depression. I’m not a clinical expert or mental health nurse or any kind of therapist. I simply have observations from experience, from a raw wrestling with this intangible mood-killer and productivity-killer and sometimes people-killer. It’s my hope to begin writing more about my personal journey toward mental health, but for now, here are some foundational observations.
Observation #1: Lots of people are fighting the dragon of depression.
In high school, my English teacher used to say that “everyone has their dragons,” meaning everyone has things in life they are fighting against. The dragon of depression is a lot more common than we believe.
When I was a freshman in college, we had a chapel speaker give a lecture on depression. Opening with a statistic, he stated, “One in seven people suffer from depression.” One of the guys in my group started counting how many people were sitting in our row and said, “Hey, that means at least one of us would be depressed!”
I tried to shrink in my seat. That one person would be me.
I don’t know if that statistic is true or not, but I do know that a lot of people experience depression. It isn’t always physically debilitating, and we can’t see it with our eyes, but it still exists, and it’s a lot more rampant than we would like to believe.
Observation #2: Lots of people treat depression like a literal dragon—like a terrifying, mysterious myth.
Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, you probably don’t spend much time talking about myths. You probably spend a lot more time on what you believe is true and relevant and affecting everyday life.
That makes complete sense—when it comes to actual myths. The problem is, depression isn’t a myth. In that way, it isn’t like a dragon at all.
However, just like a dragon, depression can seem terrifying and mysterious. As humans, we tend to shy away from the unknown, and our solution for the mysterious is to pretend like those things simply don’t exist. I don’t think anyone quite gets depression unless they’ve been there—and even those of us who've experienced it don’t completely understand it. We don't understand why it affects some people more than others, how it creeps up or vanishes or lingers, or why certain treatments or medications do or don’t work.
Even though we can't explain it, we must acknowledge depression. We have massive educational efforts for diabetes and heart disease—we even have billboards talking about stroke symptoms—but for some reason we refuse to address depression on a wide scale publicly. Yet ignoring depression can be dangerous—perhaps just as dangerous and lethal as ignoring a dragon’s existence.
Observation #3: Stigma is a Silent Killer.
In nursing school we once had a slide dramatically titled, “Hypertension: the Silent Killer.” I chuckled at how dramatic the slide was, but I never forgot it. Later, I decided that in the mental health world, stigma deserves that title. “Stigma: the Silent Killer” is not an overstatement.
Over the past few years, many courageous people have been speaking up about mental illness and opening the floor for a nationwide conversation around it. I have been so encouraged by this! However, these speakers are still a rarity. We have a long way to go.
Stigma is why the people experiencing depression are the ones you would least suspect. Because of stigma, we hide it and try to compensate and sometimes overcompensate. We pretend we're okay, but inside we hate the mask we put on. Stigma leads to isolation and contributes to shame, which leads to self-hatred, which leads to increased depression, which leads to more shame. Ultimately, stigma leads to a startlingly high suicide rate in America.
If depression is a dragon, stigma is its right-hand dragon buddy. With stigma around, people believe experiencing depression is weak and shameful. The greater the stigma and shame, the less likely people are to seek help. (Trust me, I waited four long years due to stigma and pride before going to therapy and finding help.)
Observation #4: It can always be better.
One of the flaws of depressive thinking is the belief that “it can never be better.” It all seems pretty hopeless.
Sometimes, it takes a friend to hope for you—to believe that things can get better. I was blessed to know a great group of girls in college who also struggled with depression and were brave enough to talk about it in everyday conversations. We hoped for each other when we couldn’t hope for ourselves.
Several of those girls are some of my best friends today. What happened for us was an anomaly, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be better. For individuals, for myself, my friends, and for society. Sometimes "better" is a simple step of courage away, found in working on a project we enjoy or joining a Bible study. Sometimes it's scheduling a coffee date with a friend and holding onto the knowledge that in exactly two days we'll have a friend to sit across from—encouragement and hope in tangible form. Sometimes "better" is found in a text saying someone's praying for us.
Whatever form it takes, I believe it can always be better. I believe we can create a culture where it isn’t shameful to talk about depression, a culture where we hope for each other, a culture where we know we were made to need each other.
Observation #5: A change in culture starts with individual conversations.
Practically, how do we effect change? I believe it starts with awareness and conversations.
When we talk about depression, stigma is dismantled, and the truth comes out: depression affects nearly everyone at some point in their lives, and it doesn’t mean we’re weak. In fact, those who experience depression are some of the strongest, most courageous people I know.
When we can talk about depression and hopelessness and pain, we gain opportunities to sit with others through the darkness, which perhaps is the greatest help of all. When we can talk about depression, we open the door wide for those who are struggling to find the courage, hope, and community that really is out there for them. For me. For us.
I believe it can be better. I believe it starts with you and me, carrying on this conversation about the uncomfortable topics of depression and mental illness, through blog posts and social media and real-life conversations in coffee shops and work cubicles and homes. It starts with stark transparency and healthy vulnerability and bold humility.
The truth about depression is…it can get better. And it starts with us.
Thank you to my friend Kateland Pricer for graciously letting me use her photo! Katie created a set of photos that captures feelings I could never explain with words. Her email is K.firstname.lastname@example.org. She is incredibly talented in the creative realm and just an all-around awesome person!