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Depression is not the same as being depressed

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You, as a health professional, know that. You understand that depression is a mental health disorder that casts a persistent shadow on a person’s happiness. You understand it has nothing to do with wealth, popularity or circumstance. You understand it is a merciless, pernicious condition that is no less worthy because it exists in the mind.

The public do not.

In the wake of the outpouring of grief over the death of Robin Williams, a clear gulf in health understanding emerged. Many people have recognised his suicide was a tragic manifestation of a mental health condition, and that his very public battles with addiction were personal tragedies akin to being diagnosed with diabetes or heart failure. Many more have blamed him, even in death – labelling him selfish, or demanding by what right did he feel depressed enough to kill himself?

It’s important to recognise that these statements are coping strategies in themselves. Yet ignorance is still a key factor when it comes to tackling mental health; a feeling that it’s not a real condition and that ‘chin up’, ‘suck it in’ or the horrific ‘be a man’ are all it takes to snap someone out of it.

Why? Is it because clinical terms such as depression have different meanings in the lay public? This certainly has an effect. Creationists often dismiss evolution as ‘only a theory’, not appreciating that, in science, the word has a very different meaning.

Perhaps it is because it does not manifest in a clear, physical way. You can see a flesh wound, hear a heart murmur. But, although we understand neurotransmission, the brain largely remains a mystery.

Or maybe it is simply blame – a suggestion that depression is somehow the patient’s fault. We all control our thoughts and impulses, or can dig deep and accomplish feats we thought beyond us. Mental health conditions create a false sense of weakness, and are often diagnoses of exclusion.

Whatever the reason for this confusion, it is an illusion: a false perception that unfairly targets a large patient group, generating prejudice and misunderstanding.

This blog has been hard to write. It feels macabre, the worst aspect of vulture journalism, almost disrespectful to a beloved figure from my childhood. Yet sometimes a subject is too important to ignore. There are already too many taboos. Our instincts may be not to talk about mental health, but that is exactly what we must do. We must share our knowledge.

It will not help everyone choosing to kill themselves. But it may help some.

 

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