How the Stigma facing depression makes the struggle worse.

When I decided to man up and go to battle with my depression demons, I didn’t think the real demons would be the ones outside my head.

With mental health firmly in the zeitgeist, I assumed everybody would support my struggles with relative open arms. That’s exactly what happened the last time I came out of a closet, albeit a much more fabulous one. Despite fears that my loved ones might exile me to Bible camp to pray the gay away, most of my family and friends reacted as if they already knew. Probably because I was as flamboyant as Kurt on Glee, but they accepted it as truth, nonetheless.

I got the opposite reaction when I got the nerve to talk openly about my depression: mostly surprise and a lot of skepticism.

Some friends told me I was being overly sensitive to my perennial boy problems. Some loved ones downplayed my concerns by reminding me of the much more serious health problems (ie. cancer) in the family. When I pitched the subject of depression as a documentary, certain colleagues said “guys like Bryce don’t get depressed.” Why? Because I have a sense of humour? Because I’m too effervescent, glib and shallow to experience depression?

Despite the disbelief, I noticed troublesome patterns emerging in my social (and eventually professional) life. I’d be invited to fewer parties, unless I did the organizing. I noticed a drop in communication with a majority of friends, unless I did the initiating – and in some cases total radio silence.

I started to get a feeling many people didn’t want me around because I was a wet blanket that might kill their buzz. If and when I raised such concerns they would uniformly shut them down by telling me I’m overreacting and change the subject.

Except I started hearing whispers through the gossip grapevine. Bryce is a historic “attention-seeker” and depression is just the latest call for help. He’s a blatant “narcissist” who only talks about his problems. He’s a “loose cannon” with anger management issues. He’s too “intense.” “A negative Nancy.” You get the drill.

Maybe you’re thinking this is all in my head. If you asked me to prove it in a court of law, I’d struggle to find much evidence, that wouldn’t be dismissed as heresay or mad delusions. That’s because, the Stigma facing mental illness – and by Stigma, I mean the negative stereotypes that fuel the discrimination – tends to act silently.

But every once in a while the Stigma manifests in a blatantly overt, institutional fashion. Like it did for me when I was denied a job because of mental illness.

I’ve decided to keep this story vague for now, given it’s still unfolding. But about two years ago I sought out anything that might help bolster my unpredictable life of feast and mostly famine as a starving artist. Mostly I craved stability that might help me navigate the highs and lows of depression.

I’d thought about applying to this national organization before. They’re hiring all the time and they look for part-time recruits wanting to compliment a pre-existing career. With a steady paycheck, routine hours and leadership training – it seemed a perfect fit. So I navigated several rounds of interviews, while they conducted a hearty criminal background check. They put me through the ringer with a battery of tests of body and mind, including physical endurance, and mathematics aptitude.

After I aced those, they expedited my final medical, which, for a fit guy like me, should be a formality. This performed a thorough physical, with tests of my hearing and eyesight, and collected a detailed history of physical and mental health, which I answered as honestly as I could. You can probably guess where this is going.

About a month before I was supposed to be sent away for training, I received a letter in the mail from the Powers That Be disqualifying me as “unfit for service”. My heart sank as I read the terms of my dismissal – on the grounds of my diagnosis of ADHD and for taking the requisite medication.

I told myself this must be a mistake, easily rectified with a few reference letters, attesting to my work ethic and professionalism, long before I’d ever even taken any medication for ADHD, which ironically only began halfway through this application. I included a letter from my psychiatrist, which makes clear that my ADHD doesn’t interfere with my work performance. But the Powers That Be rejected my appeals. They did not follow-up to investigate whether or not my symptoms of ADHD really impacted my performance. The label alone was apparently sufficient.

I tried to weather this discrimination storm as anybody would, by turning to my loved ones for support. But instead they wondered if this organization was justified in dismissing me. Maybe the ADHD does make me a liability. What if I stopped taking my meds and became so hyperactive, disorganized, scatterbrained and emotionally volatile that I couldn’t get anything done?

The black-and-white stereotypes – that we’re weak and unreliable, or that we’re making up our conditions for attention or to take advantage of health insurance benefits – are so deeply embedded in national government policies, they trickle down into the ideologies of the rest of us.

I couldn’t understand why my friends would choose the Dark Side over mine, but now it’s obvious. The Stigma facing mental illness is systemic.

The black-and-white stereotypes – that we’re weak and unreliable, or that we’re making up our conditions for attention or to take advantage of health insurance benefits – are so deeply embedded in national government policies, they trickle down into the ideologies of the rest of us. The managers and worker bees, who just so happen to be our friends and family members. We’ve drank the corporate Kool-Aid, so these stereotypes are ingrained into the way we think.

I’ve been told stories like mine end up preventing people from disclosing the truth of their mental illness, and eventually getting the help they need. And I’m not surprised. Who wants to lose a promotion – or even their job – because they’re deemed weak and unreliable? A part of me wishes I’d kept my ADHD to myself like a normal person  might and avoided this whole mess.

Experiences like this one are the reason depressed folk learn to stay silent. They motivate us to put on a face when we go out with are fair-weather friends, and muster up the willpower to “cheer up, butter cup.” The burden of judgement takes a huge personal toll, as we begin to experience Self Stigma.

This is where I started to question if the naysayers might actually be right.

Maybe this Evil organization was prudent in deeming me an ADHD loose cannon. Maybe guys like me don’t really get depressed. We just need to suck it up and grow a pair. I can learn to abandon my meds and manage my bullshit with good old-fashioned grit and discipline. Like a real man! Of course anybody who has experienced depression or addiction knows this sort of thinking usually leads to a major relapse.

If you were an After School Special, you might scoff; tell me not everybody’s a Stigma-fueling jerk! We should ignore the toxic friends that judge us and concentrate on the ones who “accept us for who you really are”. The ones we can confide in about our depression or ADHD or anxiety without feeling judged.

In principle, you and your After School Special are bang on. In the long haul, surrounding yourself with friends that don’t judge you is the only path to recovery. But this isn’t a high school coming of age tale. This isn’t about Jocks versus Geeks or Mean Girls and finding your tribe. Most of us mature adults fuel the stereotypes, however unintentionally, because mental illnesses are seemingly invisible, even moreso than sexual orientation, and therefore unknown to us. And we fear (and judge and bully) what we don’t understand.

At this stage, I’ve successfully navigated these tricky hurdles and discovered those friends I can trust to listen and support me with empathy and tough love. And I’m confident to say that dealing with depression head-on has made me resilient, even in face of the Stigma.

But like I said. It didn’t happen overnight. Stay tuned as I relapse my way into rock bottom!

All art credit to Joey Matthews.