Drowning in Depression: Decoding the Stigma

The wave crashes.

Trashing you head first into the depths.

You gasp for air. Water fills your lungs. You’re drowning.

You flail. You kick. You fight. You’re still drowning.

Light begins to fade to dark.

Darker, darker, darkness…

I once read that depression is like drowning – drowning while you watch everyone else swim. All the while you think: Why can’t I swim like they can? Why can’t I reach the surface? Why me?

I can also attest: depression feels like drowning. I know from first-hand experience. I know from my own major depression.

Yesterday was a day of much personal reflection – as Bell launched it “Let’s Talk” campaign to change the dialogue around mental health. To fundamentally shift our perceptions, to battle the “stigma”.

Stigma was a word that I read over, and over, and over again. It struck me not because of the “stigma” I’ve personally experienced, and now have a deep understanding of, but rather because it’s difficult for me to intellectualize “why?” there’s any stigma at all.

I’ve thought about this “why?” a lot…

What I’ve come to is this: somewhere in the evolution of Western medicine, the body was divided into separate parts. Physicians specialized in those parts: kidneys, hearts, lungs, ears, noses, throats, the list goes on.

The brain was no exception. Part of the brain went to neuroscience and neurology, part went to psychiatry and psychology. The latter – put in a literal and figurative corner. The corner for the crazy people.

For decades, maybe better described as centuries, the mind and body were split. Physical health and mental health were two distinct entities, separated by physical, societal, and financial barriers.

But here in lies the confusing bit: aren’t physical and mental health one-and-the-same?

The brain is a physical entity. It is part of our body. It is an organ. And like every other organ, like every part of the body, it is not immune to injury. It is not immune to illness. It is not immune to disease.

So, why then, is there stigma toward those with brain injuries, diseases, and illnesses? Do we have stigma towards those with kidney disease? Heart disease? Lung disease? Of course not. We intellectualize those as “body parts”, but on the other hand struggle to see the brain as a “body part”.

This is why I reframe mental illness to an illness of the brain. Not of the mind. Not of the person.

I believe we have this stigma, this lack of understanding, because the brain, unlike any other organ, has a direct correlation with human behaviour. With personality. With the mind.

It’s often the inability of those suffering from these ailments – and those supporting these sufferers – to disconnect the illness from behaviour that causes such deep frustration, misunderstanding, and stigma. It’s the crazy part.

When we reframe our thinking, we can fundamentally change how we approach “mental illness”. We begin to see how the brain can get its version of a cold, that the brain can have permanent deficiencies or impairments, that external stress and internal chemicals can have a profound effect on what our brain does - in a moment and over a lifetime.

At its core, the human body is a complex system. It is not Lego made up of distinct building blocks. That complex system is controlled by the brain, it’s communication pathway the central nervous system. It is our own version of an operating system, the O/S that regulates our entire body, the foundation for our consciousness.

So it should be no surprise that peoples’ thoughts, behaviours, and feelings can become impaired. People can feel low, people can feel like they’re drowning, people can seem “crazy” (based on our perceptions of what’s “normal”).

As we look to the next 363 days until Bell’s 2018 “Let’s Talk” campaign, I challenge you to reframe how you define mental health and mental illness. Do not think of it as separate, as distinct from physical health and physical illness. Eliminate the stigma by thinking of the body as a system, with the brain as its central player, and appreciate that the brain is inherently vulnerable. That’s what makes it – and us – human.

Now - I’d like to close with one last thought: a thank you.

Thank you to my family, friends, colleagues, medical professionals, and countless strangers for throwing me a life line. For giving me the space to re-learn how to swim. For dragging me out of the depths. Bringing me back to the surface.

It is because of you that I lightly tread water, patiently waiting to ride the next wave.


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