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The Elephant in the Room: The Stigma Around Mental Health

26/04/2013 13:41 BST | Updated 25/06/2013 10:12 BST

"How's the depression?! You should be coming off your medication now!"

After having this yelled down the phone at me by an overzealous relative, I struggled to keep the frustration out of my voice. I was diagnosed with depression around a year ago and since then most members of my family have been determined to convince me that I've been misdiagnosed or I should be coming off my medication. I've been told that it's nothing but stress, that I can't possibly have depression and that I'm not trying hard enough to see the positive in life.

Unfortunately, it's not just my family that has this reaction, and neither am I the only depressed person to have come up against this attitude. Depression is a thoroughly misunderstood mental illness. For some, it conjures up images of severely ill people living through numerous suicide attempts. For others, it's an adjective to describe how they felt when something seemingly trivial happens: "I've got too much work to go out tonight, it's so depressing!". For me, either reaction is infuriating and demonstrates the confusion that surrounds not only depression but mental health in general in this country.

It is a fact that there is a stigma around mental health: there's a reason that so many charities which support it have campaigns revolving around the concept of an elephant in the room. The majority of people I know with a mental illness would rather hide it than have to deal with the judgemental attitude they'd face if people found out. Yet it is not that uncommon a problem. In fact, it is estimated that one in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year with mixed anxiety and depression being the most common mental disorder in Britain.

So why is it such a taboo subject? I didn't tell the majority of my family about my diagnosis until around four months afterwards as I was too worried about their reaction. Oddly enough, I was completely open when I started university as I figured that my flatmates would guess something was wrong at some point, so it was better to be honest than have them feel it was something that couldn't be spoken about.

A common reaction I had from my family was that I was too young to have depression yet, according to WHO, around half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14, with around 20% of children and adolescents estimated to have one. The idea that depression has to have a specific, traumatic cause and that it therefore only affects older people is one that I have struggled against. WHO states that 'Depression is characterised by sustained sadness and loss of interest along with psychological, behavioural and physical symptoms'. So why is it so difficult for people to take depression amongst young people so seriously? Is it due to the idea that teenagers are just crying for attention and depression is just a way of obtaining this? Whatever it is, it means that many young people are too afraid to seek help until their situation becomes extreme.

Another obstacle to people asking for help is that often it is difficult for people to convey exactly what it is that they are feeling. A mental illness is exactly that - something that is wrong mentally. It can often not have obvious physical symptoms: a depressed person may, for example, struggle sleeping, suffer from loss of appetite or lose interest in sex but these are not immediately recognisable. Personally, I lost a lot of weight over a short period of time and stopped sleeping properly. When I could sleep, I suffered from night terrors. As this was over the period of my A-Levels, however, this was put down to stress. It is difficult for doctors to differentiate between the two as they have similar physical manifestations. The problem I found was that it was nearly impossible for me to turn around and ask whether there could be another problem, as I couldn't properly voice what I was feeling. I felt as though I was being nothing more than a melodramatic teenager. It took changing doctors, luckily to one who had previously been a psychiatrist, and a significant worsening of my sleeping pattern for me to be diagnosed.

Why is it that a mental illness should be treated any differently to a physical illness? Would a sufferer of cancer feel that they couldn't tell their family for fear of being judged? Depression and mental illnesses in general are exactly that: an illness. They are not something that can be wished away with happy thoughts. They need proper treatment and understanding. For this to happen, people need to feel that they can talk openly and without fear of being stigmatised.