Changing the Conversation

“The Future of Depression”

Originally published in “Forest Lake Times” here.

About 25 years ago, I remember a very tense conversation around the dinner table. As we gathered for our family meal with my Mom, Dad, little brother (7) and sister (2) there was a “feeling in the air” that even a 10 year old boy could recognize. With a calm in her voice yet a nervousness in her words, my mother explained to us that my aunt had recently been to the doctor for some tests…and those test revealed something very troubling…that my aunt had…cancer. “Cancer!” I exclaimed in a loud and scared voice that one could tell was the exact way my mom and dad felt but weren’t able to show their true feelings as not to upset us kids. It was almost as if the word itself was evil and that merely speaking the “C-word” aloud caused the room to be filled with fear. Or that perhaps simply uttering the “C-word” would open up the windows and cancer would magically crawl into the house and affect one of us—right then and there. Cancer was scary…cancer was alarming…cancer was mostly an unknown…and we didn’t even want to talk about it.

Fast forward 25 years to present day…don’t get me wrong cancer is still scary. A cancer diagnosis is still alarming and it is STILL a horrible disease…so this narrative is not meant in any way to diminish anybody’s battle with cancer. [Lord knows I’ve lost way too many friends/family to cancer] However the ONE thing that has drastically changed during this past quarter century is how we as a culture approach the disease, battle it, and how we come together as a community to support friends and family affected. Heck, nowadays we would probably be hosting a fundraiser at the neighborhood American Legion for my aunt, we’d have t-shirts made supporting her battle, hashtags would be trending, and we would make damn sure that she knew that the entire community—family, friends, everyone was going to be with her and her family during her emotional & potentially grueling battle. Again, NONE of this is a bad thing—in fact, just the opposite—these things are all PHENOMENAL displays of support and love during a battle that many times is quite literally a fight for one’s life.

Now take this same story and change the disease to…mental illness. Change it to any mental illness…anxiety, bi-polar disorder, PTSD…would we still be hosting a fundraiser for that? Would our community of friends and family print t-shirts for my aunt diagnosed with…depression? Probably not. The question I have is this: Why is it so different if someone’s battle originates in their MIND rather than their BODY? NAMI estimates that approximately 1 in 5 Americans experiences mental illness in a given year…1 in 5! That’s 20% of Americans! Yet there is still a stigma attached to it. There is still a misunderstanding and an “unknown” aspect of these diseases that affect the most powerful part of the entire human body…our brains. Unfortunately the reality of these mental illnesses going unchecked or untreated can often cause an extremely difficult and emotional battle for one’s own life. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. The 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. is something that is absolutely preventable. But those affected by mental health often fight this battle alone due in part to the stigma attached to the idea of reaching out for help, maybe the unwillingness to be vulnerable, and/or the fact that others just don’t know what to say to [or how to help] someone battling a mental illness.

Now I’m not suggesting that we call the local Lions chapter to help us organize a “Linda fights her demons” fundraiser for my friend battling depression. And we should most definitely continue to hold community events supporting those diagnosed with some form of cancer. However, I AM suggesting that we need to be more aware of the fact that there’s a “Linda” in your life RIGHT NOW that is battling a disease that we can’t see or don’t know about because it’s happening in her mind. She’s probably too embarrassed to say something…or she doesn’t know how to broach the topic. Or perhaps it is YOU reading this article that is struggling with anxiety? Maybe YOU have battled depression for a while but you don’t want to “burden” your friend or family member with your problems fearing that that they “are too busy” to listen. Or that the idea of seeking professional help for PTSD is simply only something that “weak” people do?

As a society we need approach mental illness more similar to the way we approach physical illness. We need to be willing to start the conversation about mental health, thus reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. If we can take these steps and make these changes I believe we WILL saves lives in the process. But we can’t wait—this must begin now with our generation so that our kids can sit around the dinner table and be comfortable saying that they aren’t feeling well…in their mind…and they need some help.

Paul Thomas is the Founder of the LIVIN Foundation for mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

Find more information regarding their foundation’s mission or make a tax-deductible donation Donate to Livin Foundation Here.