Erasing the stigma of depression

Williams’ illness, suicide sparks national dialogue

by Clay Neely

In the aftermath of actor and comedian Robin Williams’ suicide, a national dialogue has been sparked about depression and the many misconceptions surrounding it.

Social media has exploded with an outpouring of sympathy and disbelief. It has also provided an opportunity for many to testify about their personal experiences with depression.

The stigma attached to depression has often left those suffering to fight their battle alone. Some may self-medicate while others have chosen to hide their condition.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five Americans is currently suffering from some form of a mental health issue. Only 25 percent of those suffering believe there is anyone who is understanding and sympathetic to their disease.

Findings such as these highlight both the need to educate the public about supporting a friend or loved one with mental illness.

As a licensed social worker, Aisha Washington assists individuals in crisis on a daily basis while working at Piedmont Newnan Hospital. While she feels that society at large is slowly coming around to the realities of mental health, the death of Robin Williams has helped shine a light on the issue.

“When a celebrity dies, it immediately puts the issue in a public light,” Washington said. “Unfortunately, many struggle with their conception of what mental health really is. When they see it, they’re only see the untreated people – the disheveled. They don’t see the functional victims who struggle silently or mask their disease well.”

As a result, Washington believes that many are viewing the end result of depression and not the beginning, where an emphasis on preventative treatment is placed. Rather than victims coming to the emergency room in crisis, early detection and management is crucial.

“Recognizing signs and symptoms is important,” Washington said. “Is there a family history of depression? Do you wake up and feel sad most of the day? Have the days turned into weeks? Are you thinking about death more than other things? One has to realize this is not normal and begin the process of finding a safety net.”

While the population of Newnan continues to grow, it still maintains many of the small-town characteristics that make it such a unique place to work and live. However, it can be a double-edged sword for those who are struggling with depression.

“We still live in a small community and people are ashamed of the stigma that still exists surrounding depression,” Washington said. “With education, we can help erase it so people don’t feel they have to wear a badge of shame regarding their disease. Unfortunately, those suffering are less inclined to seek help because of the stigma. ”

Just like any other disease, depression does not define who a person is.

“When you educate the public and the person, it takes away the fear,” Washington said. “This is just a part of you. It doesn’t have to be the only thing people see.”

For Washington and many other mental health specialists, breaking down the stigma can only create a positive result. Seeing less people in the emergency room in crisis can be rectified by seeking help sooner than later.

Washington cites the resources currently available to the public such as the Georgia Crisis Line which is staffed with professional social workers and counselors 24 hours a day, every day to assist those with urgent and emergency needs.

“One of our biggest problems is people waiting until they’re in crisis to seek help,” Washington said. “If you want help, it’s available. We’d rather you come into our ER and just ask than waiting for the problem to escalate. There is no judgement.”

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