Can Erasing Stigma Lead to Earlier Acceptance of Treatment?

Today, on National Depression Screening Day, CFYM reader, Steve, shares his story of emerging from depression onto a new life path of mental health advocacy. Erasing the social stigma of depressive disorders, he believes, will pave the way to earlier use of depression screenings and encourage people to seek and accept treatment.

After a distinguished career in the Navy, I was proud to join the public sector utilizing the immeasurable discipline and knowledge I had acquired serving in our country’s military. I enrolled in a rigorous doctor of education program at Vanderbilt University with an emphasis in Human Resource Development. I was well on the way to establishing a name for myself as an independent management consultant, focusing on organizational development, prospective employee screening, and middle-management development.

Always keeping an eye on my roots, I pitched a proposal to address the needs of returning veterans to the Tennessee Department of Veterans’ Affairs. I even provided testimony to the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee on Veterans Affairs to the 102nd Congress. I was a man headed toward success, but my body and mind had different ideas.

Mental health detour

Just shy of completing my doctoral program, I was stricken by an acute episode of depression. I couldn’t get out of bed. I had no energy. I couldn’t focus.

After a year of recovery, it became apparent that I would not complete the requirements for my doctorate degree. I was devastated. My goals, dreams, and aspirations drifted away.

I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was one of the fortunate ones. My insurance provided access to the mental health services and prescription medications I required. However, I did not readily accept the help available to me, for I faced an obstacle I now recognize as internalized stigma. It’s a legitimate problem for people facing mental health challenges and can delay their receiving treatment and recapturing their lives.

I got my life back through the help of a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance support group. I drove 100 miles one-way, once a week to attend a meeting. My peers modeled for me their own lives rich in community, meaningful work, and friends. I eventually threw off the resentment and bitterness that I had been carrying inside me about living with a mental health condition.

From the board room to the advocacy board

Today I am putting to work all of the education and management skills I acquired before the onset of my depressive disorder to build a new career for myself as a mental health advocate. I am the founder and current president of DBSA Jackson, now going on its 12th year. This organization conducts three different inspirational support groups, one of which is held with inpatients at a local behavioral health hospital.

I continue to offer leadership serving as the State Director, DBSA Tennessee. But fighting stigma – whether internal, at the workplace, or in schools – continues to drive me. My urging as a board member on the Consumer Advisory Board for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, led to creation of an ad hoc committee to focus on anti-stigma initiatives. I recently participated in the largest national mental health advocacy event in Washington, DC. I visited my elected officials. I told my personal story and described the dire needs of members of my support group.

Before leaving their office, I asked each Congressional staff member this simple question: “Can you imagine how I feel each week faced with desperate, resourceless attendees in my support group and I am without any telephone numbers to give out for them to find help?”

Erasing stigma supports access to mental health screenings, enabling those who need it to seek and accept treatment. We all can and should do our part so that I never run out of phone numbers to share with people who would use them to get help.

Your Turn

As a person living with a mood disorder, or a family member of a person with a mood disorder, how have you addressed the social stigma about mental health

  • with your family?
  • at your workplace or school?
  • in your community?
  • with your elected officials?

What do you think is the single most important thing a person can do to help end the social stigma about depressive disorders?

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