Stigma

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To start, let it be known that I have depression. Technically, it’s “Major Depressive Disorder,” but, whatever.

Here’s the thing about depression: It’s not “being sad.” Depression describes the sensation of utter apathy toward everything. Eating, drinking, watching your favorite television show, writing, drawing, being awake—everything. When I’m in a depressive episode, I just want to sleep and ignore the world. If I miss my medication, not only does it make me feel like my skin is about to crawl off of my body, but I feel like nothing. I feel like, not only do I not matter, but nothing around me matters. I simply exist, and I loathe myself for taking up any amount of space.

A little while ago, while I was still job searching, I decided to go back to school for my Master’s degree. I had considered becoming a forensic sketch artist back when I was in high school and thought, with my Bachelor’s degree in graphic design and my talent for drawing faces, this could be a viable career for me. But I needed a leg up. So, I applied to Argosy under the forensic psychology Master’s course.

I got accepted. I got a student loan and I went back to school, and I was so excited about it. I ate up the new information and spoke with people who were attending classes to further their careers in the police force and the FBI. I learned that there was a place for a forensic sketch artist like I hoped.

I also learned that not everyone is as accepting of the idea of someone with depression as I thought they were.

I got an first inkling of it in my first course. The professor was talking about cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapy techniques that includes, and I mentioned DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy). He called the practice a “load of horse shit” and asked me how the hell I knew about it. I explained that it had been part of my therapy for depression, and the room fell into an uncomfortable silence. He later pulled me aside and apologized for “outing” me like that. I wrote off the whole experience as me embarrassing myself.

But then…

In a class where we were learning how to properly use the DSM IV-TR, my professor was trying to explain depression to a student who didn’t quite understand what it was. But the professor was focusing only on how depression looks from the outside. She wasn’t quite getting the point across. So, in the interest of correctness, I raised my hand and offered up the explanation that depression is more about anhedonia or apathy than it is about feeling “sad” all the time. That it physically hurts. That it never really goes away—even with medication and therapy.

I was met with silence once again and a skeptical look from my professor. She asked how I knew this, and I told the truth; that I have depression.

I realized that, watching the faces around me change into something like pity and judgement, perhaps I should not have said anything. Perhaps I should have just sat back and let this pass like so many other instances where I’ve heard people say: “It’s just being really sad all the time.”

But then I wouldn’t have found out just how wrong I was for trying to get my Master’s in that particular focus. When I was getting my Bachelor’s degree, I was never treated differently. I would explain my depression and the response would be understanding (only rarely was I met with the old: “Can’t you just try to be happy?” or “People have it worse than you. It’s all about perspective.”) without treating me differently. I found it rather ironic that I would be met with stigmatization at a school that focused on mental health.

Depression does carry a certain stigma. I’ve met people who thought I was lying about my illness and people who thought it meant that I immediately planned to commit suicide. I’ve seen fear cross over people’s faces—whether they were fearful for me or fearful for themselves, I don’t know.

I dropped out of the Master’s program about a semester after that class. I couldn’t see myself continuing to walk that career path while being eyeballed like I was immediately about to drive over to the Key Bridge and throw myself off it. In the end, I look at the whole experience as a rather expensive (I still need to pay off student loans) experiment in how different groups of people will react to someone explaining that she has depression.

How about you, readers? If you have depression, what’s the reaction you get when you tell someone about your illness?

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