Once a year or so, I’m tempted to shave my head like I’m going through chemo to make my depression visible to others. I’m thinking if I pulled a Sinead O’Connor, people would take the illness seriously. I saw a commercial the other day for some leukemia association and I was jealous. I know that’s not the response the advertising team was looking for. But as someone who is now responsible for fundraising for a foundation for treatment-resistant depression and chronic mood disorders, I thought about how much easier my job would be if the people for whom I’m raising the money actually looked sick. I have no problem getting dough for Catholic Relief Service’s Operation Rice Bowl that feeds poor kids in Africa. The paper carton which you load with dollars and cents has the photo of a beautiful African child with the message: “$1 a day for 40 days of Lent means one month of food for a family, two years of seed for a farmer, and three months of clean water for four families.” For other relief projects, you see the folks with bony arms and legs, extended stomachs, and white, crooked teeth that contrast their dark skin. Who wouldn’t fork over cash to them? However, asking for dough for depression is a whole other story. I may as well be asking to save the mosquitoes.
At some level, I believe stigma exists in each and every one of us. We think the person who can’t get upright in the morning is too lazy, stupid, or addicted. Their condition is their fault. If it’s your sister who can’t keep a job because of her mood disorder, she isn’t trying hard enough, and she won’t do yoga. If it’s your neighbor who has been depressed her whole life, she wants to be depressed on some level: She is unwilling to move beyond her baggage and do the hard work of recovery. Depression is a white- and blue-collar disease that is invisible to the public, and therefore it’s not real. Everyone who suffers from it has contracted it by their lack of discipline and good sense, their negativity and stubbornness.
I have always been very open about my struggles with depression and anxiety to most people. But there are some social groups to whom I have not divulged everything and probably won’t because whenever I mention my mood dips, they look at me as though I am a leper in need of Jesus’ healing. I went back and forth about whether I should include certain people in my fundraising email because my “ask” was connected to my personal story. I wrote, “In the 10 years I’ve spent writing and researching mental health issues, I have received thousands of emails and letters from readers who have already tried medication and alternative therapies, but still feel hopeless. They wake up each day wanting to die. For six years I lived that way. Only in the last four months have I woken up without those thoughts, and my passion for creating a dynamic, supportive community has been an important component in my healing.” I went on to say that if everyone gave five dollars, I would have met my financial goal. I had high expectations for a women’s group I’m involved in because together we have raised a lot of money for prostate cancer, autism, and other good causes. Even though disclosing my struggle in the way I did made me feel incredibly vulnerable, I thought it was worth it because the group cares about good causes. No one responded or donated. Not even a, “Thanks for the email … I’ll look at it when I have a minute.” The truth is that depression isn’t a “good cause,” not to most of the world anyway. If people are sick through their own fault (as most of us think on some level), why should we have to pull out our wallets to save these pathetic people? That’s their problem, not our problem. It’s somewhat like the rationale we use to feel okay about walking past a begger: He wouldn’t have to beg if he simply got a job, and any money I give him will feed his addiction.
I was disappointed, yes. Hurt, yes. But not surprised.
Most of them make up pseudonyms or use their initials. “I’m sorry,” they explain to me, “it’s just that I need a job, and I think I would get fired if my boss ever found out I suffered from depression. Once a year or so, I’m tempted to shave my head like I’m going through chemo to make my depression visible to others. I’m thinking if I pulled a Sinead O’Connor, people would take the illness seriously. I saw a commercial the other day for some leukemia association and I was jealous. I know that’s not the response the advertising team was looking for. But as someone who is now responsible for fundraising for a foundation for treatment-resistant depression and chronic mood disorders, I thought about how much easier my job would be if the people for whom I’m raising the money actually looked sick. When you get the constant feedback that I do running a depression community, you see the real picture of stigma today. When people sign up for my community, they are SCARED TO DEATH someone is going to find out that they are on it, that they have depression. Most of them make up pseudonyms or use their initials. “I’m sorry,” they explain to me, “it’s just that I need a job, and I think I would get fired if my boss ever found out I suffered from depression.” I get it. They are right. They might, indeed, get fired. But what does that say about the current state of awareness of this illness. THAT’S WHAT IT IS, AFTER ALL. AN ILLNESS!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s the only damn illness I know of that has people so ashamed to name. A top executive lawyer confided in me the other day about her very successful daughter who had just been hospitalized for depression. PLEASE NEVER TELL ANYONE!!!!!!!! PLEASE. PROMISE ME!!! My God, it was like she was telling me her offspring robbed a bank on her way to a Playboy photo shoot.
When I was hospitalized for my depression, my mom told relatives and friends I was there for internal bleeding. Now this is a very compassionate person who doesn’t blame me in any way for my illness. But I guess she just couldn’t stomach all the judgment she would get from family members. Kind of like my letter. “Hello??? Anyone out there??? Did no one just get my email where I said that after six years of wanting to be dead I’m waking with new thoughts and would therefore like to help a few folks get better?” I did get some profound responses and incredibly generous donations. I want to make that clear. However, the next time I send one out, I’m thinking of including a photo of me and a few people I know with shaved heads. Or maybe I’ll just use Catholic Relief Service’s photo. That might make people think depression is legit, which, of course, it is. Join Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.
This article first appeared Yahoo Health, 26March 2015