According to the mental health charity Mind, one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year. These figures aren’t too dissimilar to those for cancer; it is estimated that more than one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.
Despite these statistics regarding the prevalence of mental health issues, they haven’t been addressed with nearly the same attention or support as physical illnesses. This could have to do with the stigma surrounding mental health.
Although our previous approach to depression has been awkward at best and ignorant at worst, our perception has been turned on its head following the heartbreaking death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who recently committed suicide following a battle with severe depression.
Mind reported that within a week of Williams passing away, their Facebook page had received a sudden influx of more than 20,000 “likes.” They associated this with the increased awareness of the affliction that stole a beloved and iconic figure.
The loss of Robin Williams, however tragic, has also helped bring mental health issues into the spotlight and increased the understanding of mental health. In turn, this could help others in similar situations in the future.
Many of us will be guilty of claiming “I’m so depressed” following a bad day or a bout of bleak weather. This overuse can make it difficult to tell the difference between feeling sad and suffering from a mental health issue — for both the person experiencing these feelings and those around them.
Depression can be defined as “reoccurring periods of unhappiness” ranging from mild lows that make everyday life harder to clinical depression, which can make you lose the will to live. There are also different variations of the disorder, including post-natal depression experienced by new mothers and bipolar disorder, which in one form sees someone swing from manic highs to devastating lows.
The most important thing that must be highlighted is that it can be very difficult to tell from the outside if someone is struggling with depression. Robin Williams was a huge, buoyant personality surrounded by admirers, friends and family, and yet he still suffered terribly.
It’s important to remember that you do not need a trigger to fuel depression, in the same way that you do not need a reason behind contracting the flu — illness often befalls us unexpectedly.
Opening up a trusted channel of communication and offering understanding is the first step to identifying depression, as it allows a sufferer to open up about feelings that they may not have disclosed before.
Medication frequently is a treatment for depression. More than 50 million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued in 2012. However, alternative methods of tackling depression are not widely known because depression has not been openly talked about.
Mindfulness is a popular alternative therapy. This Buddhist practice is different from meditation. Rather than encouraging someone to empty their thoughts, they are asked to acknowledge and concentrate on them instead. Doing this can help to break negative thought patterns, which often is a large part of depression. Reuters recently published the results from a hospital study that found mindfulness helped to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety by up to 20 percent. Even simple changes such as keeping active and connecting with others can be useful when overcoming depression.
Although it is bittersweet, the increased awareness of mental health to come from Robin Williams’s case will go a long way in removing stigma and encouraging the public to accept depression as a genuine health issue that needs addressing.
Kim Ruocco manages suicide prevention and outreach programs at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors charity based in Virginia. She believes that the sensitive way that Williams’s death was handled shows a public understanding of the factors behind and effects of depression. Ruocco gladly welcomes this new take on how we see depression, as it is an important first step in battling the stigma surrounding mental health in the future.
If this is the case we should expect a greater level of understanding and wider acceptance of mental health issues, where people are encouraged to seek help rather than feel embarrassed at how others may react.
Stigma may soon be a thing of the past, as the Internet helps awareness spread like wildfire and offers more accessible advice and services to those suffering with mental health options or those who know someone who is.