Destigmatizing mental illness crucial step to help suffering

October is National Depression Awareness Month, but it is prudent to point out that mere awareness of the problem is not enough. Everyone needs to do their part to educate themselves about depression and other mental health issues so that people suffering do not feel stigmatized to the point of not getting proper treatment.

Three hundred and fifty million people, or 5 percent of the world population, suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization, but less than half of those affected seek treatment. For people who struggle with depression and other mental conditions, it is hard to get through their day-to-day routine without facing stigmas or, at least, misunderstandings from others.

Celebrities like Robin Williams exhibit the sad truth about the stigmatization and misunderstandings surrounding mental health issues: It can lead to self-harm, including suicide. It is the natural impulse of those who care about sufferers of depression to want to help, but the trouble comes with the “help” people often try to provide.

The worst response to depression or other mental health issues is to proclaim the person is making everything up and things are not actually as bad as they seem.

More common than ignorant proclamations of “cheer up!” are expressions of pity. This is understandable as an instinctual response when we are aware someone is suffering. As much as awareness is appreciated, pity does not help matters. To some sufferers of depression, pity can make them feel like there is something wrong with them. The pity reaction can cause those with depression to focus on their condition, rather than their strengths.

The best reaction is neither ignorance nor pity. Instead, the best way to approach someone with a mental illness is to be kind. A good policy to keep in mind is to simply ask the person, “How can I help?” or “What would you like me to do?”

Never lecture someone who is suffering from a mental illness. What may work for one person, like medicine or therapy, may not work for another, so being overly critical of a person’s efforts to help themselves can be counterintuitive. Communicate some advice like counseling or other resources to someone, and offer to be their advocate. Always emphasize the person’s strengths, like their courage, kindness or creativity.

Many people with depression feel worthless and feel that those around them secretly do not love them. Though it is certainly not an advocate’s job to cure someone’s depression or always be a ray of sunshine, the optimal approach is sensitivity and willingness to help.

People should educate themselves on the signs of depression, like loss of interest, reclusiveness and avoidance. Do not hesitate to approach someone who exhibits these signs. It could literally save a life.

Photo: Emilee Grace via flickr