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Openness in society an important step in destigmatizing depression

Michele St. Martin
Michele St. Martin

When I decided to take on writing the story about women and depression, “Deeper Than Blue,” that appears in this issue of Minnesota Women’s Press, I thought I was pretty well-versed on the topic — but as I began to work on it, I learned that there was much I did not know.

I had wondered why women are diagnosed so much more often than men. What I learned about the biological causes of depression and how it can affect brain chemistry helped me to correct my own misunderstandings about women and depression.

I had thought that maybe women were diagnosed with depression more often because it was easier for us to talk about emotions. Maybe men were acting out the strong, silent, suck-it-up stereotype, and that’s why they weren’t diagnosed with depression. I had also wondered if perhaps the pharmaceutical companies’ advertising of antidepressants was leading women to seek help that they don’t need, promoting an illness that, though real, was not so prevalent as greedy corporations would have us think.

A pill to perfection?
There may be some of that — certainly there are men who are depressed and need help. There are likely some women who think that swallowing a pill will make their lives perfect. I asked one of the experts I interviewed if women are more likely to think we need an antidepressant because we saw it advertised, and she gave the equivalent of a verbal shrug.

She allowed that, sure, it was possible that women who wanted perfect lives might think a pill could deliver that. She seemed more concerned about the opposite situation: women who struggled with a cultural upbringing that taught them that taking a medication and/or entering therapy to deal with depression makes them weak, that depression is “all in their heads.” And she remarked, unasked, that though she didn’t care for drug companies marketing specific antidepressants, at least seeing those ads helped to destigmatize a serious and life-threatening illness.

Those are powerful words, and they are true ones. The openness with which many in our society talk about depression is important because depression is a condition that needs and responds well to treatment. I know this from personal experience.

For most of my adult life, I’ve experienced an ongoing low-level depression (dysthymia), and 11 years ago, I suffered a major depression so severe that one day I collapsed in the bathtub and could not get out without help. I am lucky that I had both a partner who helped me pick up the pieces and get the help I needed, and access to quality health care. I needed to see a therapist three times a week for a while, and ever since, I have been taking antidepressant medication and having the infrequent psychological tune-up. Today I’m doing very well.

Friends were there for me
I am not secretive about my history with depression, and I am glad to discuss my personal experiences if I think it will help someone else. I am lucky to have friends who are able to casually discuss the relative merits of Wellbutrin and Lexapro over coffee. Most of the people with whom I am on intimate terms believe that depression is a treatable illness, no more deserving of stigma than a sprained ankle or breast cancer.

It is other people who I hope will read our story about depression. There are many women whose families don’t understand what they are going through, who think that depression is “all in their heads,” whose cultural backgrounds or religious upbringings frown on treatment. And they are the men who believe that it’s not manly to admit to a mood disorder. And sometimes they are children who can’t verbalize why they feel the way they do. They are people who are ashamed of something that is a medical problem, just like a sprained ankle or strep throat.

Mental illness is isolating. One of the best things you can do if you suspect a friend is experiencing depression is to be there for her. Consistently. Even if she isn’t a lot of fun right now. Your support may mean more than you’ll ever know. It may lead to her treatment and recovery, or even her survival. What better thanks could there be?

Michele St. Martin is the editor of Minnesota Women’s Press.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 10/07/2008 - 07:19 pm.

    Men aren’t supposed to be depressed. They are supposed to be able to “tough it out.” Doesn’t always work out that way.

  2. Submitted by Michele St. Martin on 10/08/2008 - 11:42 am.

    John, I think what you say about our culture’s attitudes about men and depression has some validity. Thanks for posting.

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