The Persistence of the Mental Illness Stigma
There is an excellent guest op-ed piece in today’s New York Times written by two high-school women who articulately express the their experience of the travails of chronic depression, its isolating quality, and the stigma that remains attached to the reality. I was moved by their desire to unveil some of the solitary, and thereby confounding, dimension of such illness through their practice of journalism, only to be prevented by their school’s administrators. The argument against publishing such interviews with peers was “concern” for the students, yet this road constructed with seeming best intentions actually led to the reiterating hell of isolation and reinforcement of social stigma that needs to be lifted.
These young women deserve a lot of credit and I’m proud of the New York Times for publishing their piece. I have a number of friends — some in religious life, some not — who suffer from illnesses including chronic depression and general anxiety disorder. Part of their challenge, which is truly unnecessary, is the inability to freely share their experiences for all the reasons these two young women write about in their essay. I hope that this won’t be the end of the discussion. I also hope that their high school realizes that if it’s good enough for the NYT, it should be good enough for a school paper.
Here’s the full piece:
“Depressed, But Not Ashamed” by Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — MOST of our closest friends didn’t know that we struggled with depression. It just wasn’t something we discussed with our high school classmates. We found that we both had taken Prozac only when one of us caught a glimpse of a prescription bottle in a suitcase during a journalism conference last November. For the first time, we openly discussed our feelings and our use of antidepressants with someone who could relate. We took a risk sharing our experiences with depression, but in our honesty, we found a support system. We knew we had to take the idea further.
In the United States, for people between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Untreated depression is one of the leading causes of suicide. According to the National Comorbidity Survey: Adolescent Supplement, 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.
We were not alone. We wondered why, with so many teenagers dealing with depression, it was still addressed in such impersonal ways.
As editors at our high school newspaper, we decided to fight against the stigma and proposed devoting a whole edition to personal stories from our peers who were suffering from mental illness. We wanted honesty with no anonymity.
We knew that discussing mental health in this way would be edgy, even for our progressive community in Michigan. But we were shocked when the school administration would not allow us to publish the articles.
With the help of other journalism students, we interviewed teenagers from around our school district who shared stories of depression, eating disorders, homelessness, prescription abuse, insomnia and anxiety. Many discussed their personal struggles for the first time. All agreed to attach their full name — no anonymity or pseudonyms. Following online recommendations of the Student Press Law Center, we asked the parents of each student to sign consent forms for the articles.
As we were putting the stories together, the head of our school called us into her office to tell us about a former college football player from our area who had struggled with depression and would be willing to let us interview him. We wondered why she was proposing this story to us since he wasn’t a current high school student. We declined her suggestion. We didn’t want to replace these deeply personal articles about our peers with a piece about someone removed from the students. After we asked her why she was suggesting this, she told us that she couldn’t support our moving forward with the articles.
From an administrative perspective, this made some sense. It is her job to protect the students to the best of her ability. She believed that the well-being of those who shared their experiences — and most important, their names — would be put at risk because of potential bullying. She also mentioned that she had consulted a mental health professional, who told her that reading about their own depression could trigger a recurrence in some of the students and that those who committed to telling their stories might regret it later.
Our school has a very tolerant atmosphere, and it even has a depression awareness group, so this response seemed uncharacteristic. We were surprised that the administration and the adults who advocated for mental health awareness were the ones standing in the way of it. By telling us that students could not talk openly about their struggles, they reinforced the very stigma we were trying to eliminate.
The feeling of being alone is closely linked to depression. This can be exacerbated if there is no one to reach out to. Though there are professionals to talk to, we feel it doesn’t compare to sharing your experiences with a peer who has faced similar struggles. And, most important to us, no one afflicted with a mental illness should have to believe that it’s something he should feel obliged to hide in the first place. If someone has an illness such as diabetes, she is not discouraged from speaking about it. Depression does not indicate mental weakness. It is a disorder, often a flaw of biology, not one of character.
By interviewing these teenagers for our newspaper, we tried — and failed — to start small in the fight against stigma. Unfortunately, we’ve learned this won’t be easy. It seems that those who are charged with advocating for our well-being aren’t ready yet to let us have an open and honest dialogue about depression.