Today would have been my husband John’s 37th birthday. He lost a long and painful battle with depression on February 5, 2005. His illness went undiagnosed and untreated.
No one was listening.
Untreated depression is as likely to kill you as untreated cancer. In fact, depression can cause all kinds of physical symptoms: chronic joint pain, limb pain, back pain, gastrointestinal problems, tiredness, sleep disturbances, psychomotor activity changes, and appetite changes. But many illnesses can cause symptoms like these: poor diet, stress, autoimmune disease, and cancer. Depression is difficult to diagnose. John exhibited some of these symptoms, and those around him could see it, but he seemed to manage; many people do. Not only is depression hard to spot, once diagnosed it is not an easy subject to talk about.
I often wondered why the conversation around depression, but also the larger topic of mental illness, was so difficult. After John died, it felt strange to tell people about his death and if I was just meeting someone, often times I didn’t say anything. It is a great way to kill a conversation, or at least that’s what I often assumed. I started to get tired of this non-disclosure; it was like I couldn’t tell people about a large part of my life–it was as if it never happened.
The problem is the stigma associated with mental illness. Mental Illness Affects 25% of the United States population and still, few people are comfortable telling others about their own, or a family member’s diagnosis. Frequently, there is a societal perception that if you are medicated you just can’t deal with your problems, or you are not legitimately sick. This prevents many people from seeking the help that they need.
Over the past nine years, I have learned about many organizations and events to help educate us about the very realness of mental illness. The best national clearinghouse is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ New York City Chapter recently launched the I Will Listen campaign. This campaign has powerful potential to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness, because it asks you to promise to be a safe set of ears for someone who needs to talk about their illness.
By promising to listen, your help create a larger network of listeners and you open up the conversation.
Facebook and Twitter #IWillListen
I hope that people continue to listen. I know that I will.