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Health June 2017

Leslie Goes Boom

The Stigma of Mental Illness – How Depressing

By Leslie Handler

I know few people who haven’t either been touched by some type of mental illness personally or know a close friend or family member who has. Nevertheless, the stigma of having a mental illness remains socially poor.

I suffer from mild depression. There, I said it. It wasn’t even difficult for me. Since I was in my late teens, I’ve had very mild bouts of depression. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I continue to take a mild anti-depressant, exercise fairly regularly, and get plenty of rest, I can usually control the depression and it very rarely inhibits my life. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Depression effects over 15 million Americans. With that large a number, you wouldn’t think that our citizens and our systems would be so antiquated in their thinking about not only depression, but mental illness in general. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) took effect, that patients could even get equal medical care for mental illnesses. Before the ADA, if you were stricken with cancer, you could find an in-network oncologist, go to as many appointments as necessary to get proper treatment, share your bad news with family and friends, get both their support and financial support from your insurance company, and have a fair chance at recovery.

If you were stricken with severe clinical depression, it would normally take several months to get an appointment with an in-network psychiatrist, you’d have a limited number of visits to the doctor whether you were better or not, share your bad news with only the most trusted family members and friends, and only get support from those limited people and a limited amount of financial help from your insurance company. Your chances of recovery under these circumstances were limited.

Thanks to the ADA, mental illness today is treated with the same type of coverage as any other illness with one big exception: socially.

I can tell anyone I know that I have cancer, and I know I’ll have their compassion. I can tell anyone I know that I’m suffering from depression, and I’ll have only some folks offering compassion. Others will feel uncomfortable and try to change the subject, some will judge me as weak minded, and still others will think I’m just a nut job…yes, even in 2017!

I know few people who haven’t either been touched by some type of mental illness personally or know a close friend or family member who has. Nevertheless, the stigma of having a mental illness remains socially poor.

Don’t go thinking this attitude is only for the non-educated. It was only a few years ago when the following story happened to me.

I’ve known them for many years. They know that I have a number of family members who have mental illness. They each hold advanced degrees. It was a Sunday morning when all the “talking heads” were on TV. I was sitting between them on the couch. Somehow, the subject of mental illness came up on the screen when one them asked the other if they’d ever gone to counseling or had any type of psychological therapy before. When the other answered no, they both did a high five across my chest. They were quite proud of this fact.

I was appalled. How obtuse could two people be? They absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, knew my background. They knew I had family members who suffered from mental illness, yet they didn’t hesitate to treat their lack of need for therapy as if they were better than everyone else. Somehow, I doubt they would have reacted the same way if they had confirmed to each other that neither of them had ever gone to an oncologist for cancer treatment, but therapy to them, was a weakness. They were proud they hadn’t needed such treatment. I’ve heard of people being happy they don’t have diabetes, but I have yet to hear someone be proud that they don’t need insulin for their diabetes.

When this incident happened, I was so disturbed by it that I had to immediately get up and leave. I couldn’t even be in the same house with them. I was truly shocked not only at their ignorance, but at their lack of compassion. The incident happened a number of years ago, but I’ve never been able to forget it.

To make matters worse, it was only a few months later when one of them secretly told me her husband takes Xanax for occasional anxiety. She told me in the strictest of confidence because to her, it was something to be embarrassed about.

Fortunately for me, I only suffered from severe clinical depression once in my life. I’ve had cancer, a bladder disease, and a number of various surgeries over the years, and I can tell you that my episode with depression was worse than any of them by far. Depression can be completely debilitating. It makes it worse when you’re sick, and feel that you have to hide your illness from people you love because you know they will judge you, and they will not understand.

I hope I never have to go through that experience ever again. I hope none of my family members has to suffer from such an illness in the future. I do know that today, they’ll at least get all the medical coverage they’ll need without limitation, and they will always be able to come to me for non-judgmental love and support. May you find the same in your circle of friends and family.


I’ve fallen and I CAN get up are the words I live by because when I fall and go BOOM, I always get back up."

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