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Addressing stereotypes in depression

In this article we address some of the common myths and stereotypes surrounding mental health.

Many people with mental health issues such as depression, report that misunderstanding and stigma make it more difficult to acknowledge their difficulties and seek any help (for fear of discrimination from family, friends and employees).

In the UK and elsewhere, initiatives have been put in place to try and change public attitudes to mental illness—you can find more information about one UK based project, Time to Change, which aims to end mental health discrimination and stigma.

It’s really important to address some of the common myths and stereotypes that you may be aware of. Different people may experience depression differently, but it’s really important to remember that how we talk and think about depression can really affect those experiencing these difficulties. Take a look at the following statements and consider the information relating to each one. There’ll be an opportunity to discuss these and other stereotypes that you may be aware of at the end of this Step.

Statement 1: Depression isn’t a ‘proper’ illness.

Individuals with depression may often hear this from friends or family who don’t properly understand their difficulties and who therefore lack sympathy with them. However, depression, like any physical illness takes a real toll on our health and well-being, and like any illness requires empathy and warrants effective treatment. We would not expect someone with a physical condition such as diabetes to just ‘get on with it’ without proper care, so why does this happen with depression?

Statement 2: People who experience depression are just lazy and mentally weak.

Having depression does not make you weak or lazy. Many strong and very motivated people develop depression. As we’ve seen, depression is a very real problem for many people, and it’s not a reflection on the individual who is experiencing low mood. This negative belief increases stigma and can interfere with offers of help and support to people who have depression.

Statement 3: Depression and sadness are the same thing.

Many people might refer to themselves as ‘feeling depressed’. However, as we’ll see in the next section, depression and sadness are definitely not one and the same thing. Fluctuations in mood, and feeling sad or blue are perfectly normal. However, depression is very different in terms of the duration and severity of mood disturbance and the impact it has on people’s day to day life.

Statement 4: Depression is just the result of a having a tough time.

Significant life events, such as divorce, bereavement, retirement and job loss, do increase the risk of becoming depressed. However, these things don’t inevitably result in depression, and equally, depression can occur in the absence of such life events. Depression is most likely to be caused by a number of different factors; it’s a complicated picture involving biological factors like our genetics, social factors such as poverty, or very stressful events and psychological factors which we’ll discuss in more detail later.

Statement 5: If you’re depressed, you need to take anti-depressant medication.

In the UK for adults, use of anti-depressants is only recommended in the treatment of moderate to severe depression. A copy of the guidelines can be accessed here. Talking therapies such as CBT are recommended for mild to moderate depression. Anti-depressants should only be given to children or teenagers if supervised by a specialist child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Statement 6: People with depression just need to snap out of it.

People with depression do not choose to feel this way (just in the same way that someone with diabetes or a broken foot wouldn’t choose to have those either). Friends and family members of those with depression may try to offer advice in the belief that they are being helpful. However, sometimes, advice may be misguided and may even make things worse.

Take a look at the cartoon below, which illustrates the kinds of things that are often said to people with depression. Imagine if they were suggested to people who had different physical health problems. For the text version of the comic please click here.

Figure 1: ‘Helpful Advice’ © Robot Hugs.

Why do you think there’s such a difference between how people perceive physical and mental health problems? What impact might this have on people with mental health difficulties? Share your thoughts in the discussion area below

© University of Reading
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Understanding Anxiety, Depression and CBT

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