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Genevieve Vieira
3 minute read
4 Apr 2014
6:00 am

Stigma, self-doubt and shame

Genevieve Vieira

It started with mood swings. I would snap at someone or feel sad for no particular reason.

Image: Supplied.

I would take minor incidents and turn them into major doubts, escalating into uncontrollable worries. This led to a state of hopelessness and soon I couldn’t control the anxiety.

This was not a garden-variety sadness, but the sort loosely referred to in modern society as “depression”. I knew that after minutes, hours, or even days had passed, the feeling would still be there. I was suffocating under layers and layers of padding and, no matter how hard I fought, tugging at the corners to get out, each little ray of light would be blotted out by more padding, burying me deeper and deeper in a state of despair.

I couldn’t tell anyone because they’d think I was crazy. Well, at least that’s what I thought. I had things to do, responsibilities to take care of. I should be able to snap out of it. Think positive and everything would be ok. But it wasn’t.

Everyone occasionally feels sad, but these feelings are short-lived. Major depression is not something that is fleeting or will pass with time. It dominates a person’s life to the extent where they question whether life is worth living.

I began to seek help, but the feelings of shame continued. I can’t tell anyone I’m in hospital for depression; that I can’t deal with the stresses of life. What happens if they think I am unstable or immature?

My boyfriend posed the question: “Would you feel embarrassed or guilty for missing work if you had cancer?”

The answer was a no-brainer and soon things began to fall into perspective. I was sick. I didn’t ask for it. It was beyond my control. All too often people with mental illness never seek treatment because they are afraid of what others may think, and sadly the reactions sometimes suggest that reticence wasn’t a bad approach.

“There is still a lot of misunderstanding about mental health from both an educational and a social perspective,” says Janine Shamos, spokesperson of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

“People often still believe that individuals with mental illnesses are either ‘weak’ or ‘crazy’. There are useful media campaigns, but people need to be talking and engaging others to learn more about mental illnesses. People generally are frightened of or feel uncomfortable about things they don’t understand and, in the absence of facts, they tend to make up their own.”

Depression is a common but serious illness, one that is treatable. Shamos explains: “Life can be tough and while there are no specific causes of depression, there are certainly triggers like environment, family history, genetics, trauma and so on. With anxiety, while there is a genetic component, things like caffeine, salt and sugar can trigger a panic attack and trauma can certainly trigger anxiety.”

Although there are a number of medications and psychotherapies available, the stigma around mental illness often stops those suffering from seeking help. It is a critical issue worldwide.

“Sadly, mental illness is still highly stigmatised and discriminated against. Many people suffer in silence for fear of judgment or reprisal from family, friends and colleagues,” Shamos says.

“Education is key. We need to share the facts with people and let them ask questions.”