The stigma of depression

How prejudiced opinions about depression and anti-depressants make it so much more difficult to deal with

I never thought I would have to experience depression. I remember how depression, until my mid twenties, was a very foreign phenomenon to me. I imagined it would only happen to people who were faced with tragic circumstances or for some reason weren’t able to maintain an appreciative approach to life.

I have now had to work my way through four periods of depression of varying intensity. I was completely taken by surprise when I found myself in it the first couple of times and had a really hard time accepting that it was the case. In my case it has typically taken about six months for the “dark cloud” to lift and I felt like I regained my “normal” sense of self and again started to enjoy all the things that I love in my life.

Depression is an absolutely awful experience to go through and it’s incredibly hard to deal with for many reasons. I have had partly to rely on medical treatment to work with it (in the form of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors known as SSRI’s). What has recently been taking up my mind is how the wide spread stigma associated with depression and anti-depressants is a circumstance non intrinsic to the experience itself that makes it much more difficult to deal with. In fact the prejudiced opinions that you carry yourself and meet from others often make the experience worse.

Some typical opinions regarding anti-depressants go like this:

“Pills are a quick fix that will only make the depression worse in the long run”
“Taking medication is a way of fleeing reality and not dealing with your emotions”
“Psychotropics are dangerous because they will change your personality”
“Anti-depressants will make you numb and unable to feel your own feelings”
“anti-depressants are over prescribed”
“You shouldn’t have to take pills in order to be happy”
“We all experience feeling sad and helpless once in a while”

Firstly; you don’t take anti-depressants in order to be happy, you take them in order not to be depressed. So we should stop calling them “happy pills” or the like. The last phrase above is very common, but it’s also one of the most disrespectful comments you can offer someone suffering from depression. I too often experience feeling sad and helpless and agree that it’s a natural part of life that we must all deal with. But speaking from experience, that is NOT the same as suffering from clinical depression. Assuming that it is, is a short circuit that shows lack of understanding and lack of respect for the difficulties that some have to deal with in this life. People who have not been close to depression or the like should really think twice before imposing their quick and easy opinions on suffering individuals, because it can be incredibly hurtful.

Symptoms of depression or medical treatment?

While some degree of “numbness” is a known although rare side effect of SSRI’s, in my personal experience numbness - or not being able to feel my own feelings — has been a symptom of depression rather than one of the medical treatment I have been going through. It can be hard to tell what’s causing what, when both treatment and depression is going on. But in my experience after the “dark cloud” of depression has lifted I have had a rich emotional life even while still being in preventive medical treatment. I have fallen in love like never before, I have been filled with frustration and sadness when my partner broke up and when my granddad died and I have often been angry — even furious when being treated unfairly.

I don’t like taking anti-depressants and have often considered flushing them down the drain. But all professionals I have been talking to has been warning me against stair casing out too quickly. One exception is advocates for “alternative” medicin. But some of them, I feel like, have a somewhat limited understanding of what kind of phenomenon depression is and have a quite rough position on the supposed dehumanizing effects of psychotropics (all of which are often collapsed into one devilish category).

I would never recommend anyone taking any kind of anti-depressants, but I would also never categorically recommend them not to do it if they are suffering from depression or the like. For some it can be a necessary help to be lifted to a level where they can actually work actively with themselves. My experience is that depression is a very individual thing. It can have different causes and express itself in different ways. Effective treatment is equally individual. We are all made up differently in regards to biology, physiology and psychology and I have a deep respect for the fact that some things work for some and not for others and everything in between. Personally I have benefitted from both SSRI-medical treatment, therapy, meditation practice and actively changing life/work circumstances.

A meaningful passage

I feel like the depression I have gone through is one of the experiences in my life from which I have learned the most. It has strengthened my respect, understanding and compassion towards others who suffer from difficult conditions. And especially people who are suffering so much that they can’t possibly deal with the situation themselves and need help. It has also really motivated me to work with myself and this despite the fact that I have been relying partly on medical treatment.

To the extend that the SSRI-treatment have helped me get through those awful periods I am grateful for it. Would the “dark cloud” have lifted by itself or because of the other interventions I was helped to mobilize? I don’t know. But I am not so sure that I would exclude the possibility that the medical treatment was an important contributing factor. And I would definitely recommend anyone else considering flushing the stigmatized pills down the drain to be careful and not just do it in the grip of emotions. And in the absence of emotions consider to which extend it might be depression or pills causing this.

I hope in time we’ll all understand depression and it’s causes even better. May those of us suffering from depression and those close to us find respectful and skillful ways to deal with it.