Destigmatizing DV mental illness

The hallways look a lot different now — at least to me.

I see something that I didn’t see before. It prowls around, consuming us, slowly, and attacking us at our weakest moments. Yes, there’s a creature hidden in the shadows. One that is constantly overlooked, yet omnipresent and deadly: mental illness.

It’s human nature to run when things get scary. It’s our fight or flight response, but our flight has thrust us into a new realm of denial. The refusal to accept and understand mental illnesses (specifically depression), or even worse, to paint an inaccurate picture for ourselves of what being diagnosed with a mental illness truly means (maybe to protect ourselves, or maybe to make it easier to talk about), is what prevents us from finding a viable solution.

There is so much we don’t know, and the barrier to that knowledge is ourselves. I acknowledge that depression exists, definitely, but do I ever bother to understand what that means at Dougherty? The easy answer is no. The harder one is “Yes … kind of … maybe? Can I even fathom what it means to have a mental illness?” No, I really can’t. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

I have constantly pondered over the issue of mental health, and tried to ask myself questions: what does being depressed really mean? Have we created an irreversible environment at our school where, while we recognize that mental illnesses are naturally occurring and detrimental to our health, we still stigmatize them? I only ended up with a superficial response that I secretly know will create no change: “Yes, we need more awareness centered around mental illnesses.” As if nobody has said that before.

And that’s when I realized that while I may have this ready-made response in my head, this answer that I created for myself was ultimately preventing me from understanding what it means to have a mental illness, and what “fixing” the issue might mean. In other words, I had created a scapegoat for my thoughts, in the sense that I had alleviated my own mind to a point where I avoided the issue.

And to be completely honest, I was terrified to know more, and a lot of us are, because it makes the problem “real.” It solidifies it, and suddenly mental illness is no longer that issue you read about in books or in health class. That issue that you say will never happen to you, or those around you, is happening. Very much so.

The idea that we can struggle with a mental illness, and are susceptible to them, is scary. We shut things out when we’re scared, we go and hide under the bed. We know that it’s there, but we refuse to get out and simply try to understand what it actually is.

So we make a version for ourselves: a version that helps us deal with and understand this untouchable subject, a version so watered down that it can’t even compare to the reality. And when we have a simple problem, it’s easy for us to come up with a solution for ourselves, even though we know subconsciously it won’t change a thing.

“It’ll be ok.”
“It’ll go away.”

We can fool ourselves into thinking we can understand what it takes to alleviate mental illnesses, such as depression, without actually empathizing with these individuals. However, it is blatantly wrong to try to find a solution when we don’t even know what the problem is.
And in complete truth, it is somewhat selfish to live in our own glorious world of lies, when there are many who can’t be open about how they feel or what they go through every day for fear of being a burden, and of scaring their friends and family. I have done it, and maybe you have too, so let’s learn from that.

In an attempt to break out of this world of lies, I recently asked Kaihan Qazan, a Dougherty sophomore who is clinically diagnosed with depression, to give me insight into his illness.
“I kind of knew it all along, so when I was actually diagnosed, it was just confirmation and relief that I’m not feeling down all the time for no reason,” said Qazan. “My peers were very surprised because I do such a good job of putting [on] this happy face and smiling all the time.”

When asked about the effects of raising awareness about mental health at Dougherty, Qazan said, “[Awareness] stops people from making people happy because, ‘Oh crap, they’re depressed. There’s no way I can make them happy.’ It’s bringing it to people’s attention that this is real, and instead of us putting on a mask, and having nobody know, people would have a general idea, and it’s something we want to keep more private than public.”

Once again, our reactions to the idea of depression are what ultimately stopsthose with mental illnesses from feeling comfortable talking about it.

It creates a different kind of stigma. Not a “what is wrong with you?” sort of stigma, but a pitiful one, which is worse in some ways.

I dived even deeper, and finally got the nerve to ask my friend about what they go through. Out of respect for their privacy, I’ll refer to them as Betty. Betty’s answer was by no means expected, but it completely changed my view on what I thought depression was.

“Depression to me is stifling. I lose the effort to do anything, like homework. Suicidal thoughts can plague my mind, and sometimes I cry myself to sleep. Sometimes I feel so low I stare at my wall for hours on end, feeling broken beyond repair,” Betty explained. “Depression is like the lava in a volcano; you hold all the magma in, pressure builds, and then you explode. Depression feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Based on my conversations with Qazan and Betty, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two sides of depression. First, there is the perception by those who don’t suffer from it, the assumption that it’s a constant state of sadness, but that presumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. And then there is there is the more complex, more nuanced reality. Those with depression can feel happy. They can laugh. They can love.

She continued, “I’m tired of people romanticizing my mental illness, because people don’t realize that I feel joy and sometimes I’m so incredibly happy. Depression is feeling the warmth of the sun on your face and remembering what peace looks like, because you’ve forgotten what life with light is. Depression is dancing without a care in the world, and [having] supportive friends.”

By treating those with depression as those who can’t feel anything besides sadness, you confine them to that state of mind and that despair. You limit their ability to feel joy because they are seen as those who can’t.

We are terrified of the creature, but little do we realize that we feed it with stigma and ignorance.

Is there a solution? Can you “solve” mental illness? I don’t know. And we don’t have to. Instead of taking a placebo and tricking ourselves into thinking that there is a simple solution that truly does nothing but comfort yourself, take baby steps.

Learn about it, talk about it, and most of all, love and support those who need it.

The hallways look different.
I see depression. I see bliss. I see despair. I see hope. I see isolation. I see friendship. I see weakness, but I see so much more strength. I once saw a creature.