Isolation and the Stigma of Depression

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Reader’s Question

I have started suspecting I have depression. I have spent at least two to three weeks taking every online test there is to diagnose myself and they tell me I have moderate-severe depression or severe depression, but I feel like I am over exaggerating. I don’t want to tell my parents because I think they may think I am lying or again over exaggerating. I have looked up the DSM criteria and I fit, but I still doubt myself. I don’t even know what I would do if I confirmed it because I don’t want to make a big deal and drag everyone else down with me. I also am afraid to ask anyone else if it is normal to feel this way, because if it isn’t normal, then they will view me differently and people will treat me differently. If it is normal, then I will have made a big deal over nothing.

Here are some of the main symptoms I am experiencing:

  • I either feel sad and stressed, or I feel completely numb to emotion at all.
  • I feel tired all the time no matter how much I try to sleep.
  • I have more trouble than I used to waking up, and I am finding it increasingly harder to fall asleep.
  • My dreams aren’t necessarily nightmares, but they have taken a dark turn.
  • I don’t enjoy activities or friends that I used to.
  • I give everything a number 1-100, 100 being the best thing ever, 1 being I hate it. I do this with rooms, days, events etc. I haven’t risen above a 60 for 3 weeks.

I don’t know what I should do.

Psychologist’s Reply

From the symptoms you describe, depression could be a strong possibility for you. However, I see you doubt and fear what this could be and I believe it relates to the stigma that comes with having depression.

For many people who suffer from depression, they suffer alone. Depression tends to have the unfortunate side effect of making those who suffer with it feel like others will judge them harshly if they are discovered and that they are doomed to be alone with it. They fear others will see them differently, treat them differently, and believe others will not understand or accept what they feel.

Truth be told, depression is pretty common. Around one in four people will have to deal with depression at some point in their life. This is quite similar to illnesses like cancer. You’d be surprised who has depression too. Actors, presidents, athletes, students, and even psychologists like me. Likely, someone in the room with you right now has encountered depression and thought similar things about it like you have. Many people fear being seen as different, crazy, weird, or dysfunctional and fear that if they reveal what they feel they will be a burden to others. The problem with this type of stigma is that it turns into something we call social distancing. Social distancing is the process by which those who suffer begin to isolate themselves from help and support because of the fear people will not understand. It culminates in a sort of culture of silence on depression.

Here is something I tell many of my clients I see with depression: if you ever wanted to make it worse, or suffer more, just simply lock yourself away with it. Don’t talk about it, don’t go out, stay in and isolate. Depression seems to increase tenfold when we are successful at isolating or convincing ourselves there is no support for us out there. To make things worse, the stigma can often be internalized, resulting in poor self-esteem and distorting our perceptions about ourselves for the worse. We begin to see ourselves as unimportant and even weak.

Stigma around depression is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — obstacle that prevents those who suffer from getting the help they need. Many prefer to just live with it and not seek help. It prevents people from trying therapy, trying medication, finding support and eventually discovering something very simple, yet immensely important — that they are not alone.

Two things can begin to help here. The first is education, including educating yourself on what depression is and isn’t. Know that depression is a combination of neurobiological and psychological parts. It is just as real as a broken arm. We just can’t see it on an x-ray. Second, know that with proper diagnosis and treatment, depression is manageable and that living with it is something many of us do. Seeking treatment is the next step. Among many other things, the stigma around therapy can be that getting help makes you weak. My clients are some of the strongest people I know. To sit and be with your pain and face it head on is actually quite admirable, but also a really good definition of strength. If you are still in doubt, Huffington Post has a graph to help decide if you should be ashamed of your depression.

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