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Mar 7 2014

It’s Time to Fight the Stigma of Mental Illness

By at 12:52 pm

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As a social worker, I have always been about combating the stigma of mental illness. As a human being, I have been passionate about it. As someone with an actual diagnosis of depression, it is always on my mind.

Why is there still a stigma?

I do not want my daughter to grow up whispering the word, “depression;” I want there to be open conversations where people can talk about illness–any illness–and not feel isolated as a result. When someone talks about controlling his or her diabetes, that is more accepted than someone talking about depression. It scares people. But why? Obviously society and environment has created this. Why is it that I have to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to my psychiatrist because my health insurance has a deductible and then will only cover 80% (which is actually a good deal!)? When will this stop? The more it is talked about, the more mainstream the conversation will become.

I make it a point to talk to my daughter about “feelings.” It is important to me to teach her that she does not need to feel happy all of the time and that, in fact, no one feels happy all day every day. We talk about feeling sad when she is upset and I tell her that it is okay to feel sad, even though it does not feel too good. Since she is only 4 years old, I do not use the word “depression” as I don’t feel the need to provide that label. Instead I tell her that sometimes mommy feels sad too, but that feeling does not last forever. Feelings are allowed in our house and welcome, no matter what they are. That is the lesson I am teaching my daughter.

When I was in college I interned at the Alliance for the Mentally Ill in New York City. It was a fabulous experience for many reasons, but mostly due to the fact that I was part of something bigger than me, that was about people like me. I could write letters about mental health parity and provide guidance to parents of a son with schizophrenia. There was no stigma in those four walls and yet we fought it constantly. I am not hiding behind a closed door anymore and I hope more people will talk about their experiences with trusting friends or family. I want the conversation to go on, and on, and on. There is always talk of medical issues but only a token story about mental health, unless there is a school shooting when someone in the mental health industry is blamed for missing the “signs.”

By no means do I think people should stand up and yell out, “my name is Risa and I have depression!” I do think that small conversations can be very empowering. When you are depressed, you feel alone, even if there are a hundred people surrounding you. These small conversations can start connections that can help in the healing process.

When I first met my psychiatrist 20 years ago, she said something that remains at the back of my mind, “no one ever said it was going to be easy.” None of this is easy but it could be more supportive. To quote the Talmud, “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” (all Jews are responsible for one another”). I hope we can be supportive of one another, no matter what the issue is: medical illness or mental illness, everyone deserves to be supported and cared for.

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