Mental illness #break the stigma

Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.
Michelle Obama

Mental health, one of the most important things in our lives, whether young or old. It determines how we interact with people around us, how we handle stress and problems, how we make choices and act.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) almost 18 percent of US adults suffered from a mental illness in 2015. And unfortunately it’s not just adults. One in five children (age 13-18) suffer at some point in their life from a debilitating mental disorder.
Considering those numbers and the impact of mental illness, it’s rather surprising how little attention we give it. And by keeping silent, we maintain the stigma surrounding mental illness. Getting rid of the stigma and recognizing that it’s a real illness will encourage more people to seek the help they need and do justice to their suffering.

I’ve experienced this stigma first hand. Ever since I was a teenager I have been struggling on and off with episodes of depression. First of all, it took years before I found out I suffered from depression. It’s not something they talk about in schools (though, considering the amount of children that suffer I think they should!). In fact, no one ever talks about it.
Things didn’t get much better when I knew I suffered from depression. Like before, people kept telling me to think positively, socialize and exercise more. It became painfully clear that people saw it as something I could have prevented or at least could cure by doing things differently. In their eyes I was just feeling blue, no big deal. However, depression is something totally different than having the blues. Depression is an illness with serious impact on the person who suffers from it as well as the people around him/her.

Besides the fact that depression is often not considered to be a “real” illness, there’s also the notion that you’re crazy. Once someone said to me that if one sees a psychiatrist “you’re really crazy”. I politely explained that a psychiatrist is nothing more than a doctor who’s specialized in mental illness and that most people that see a psychiatrist are absolutely not crazy. But it definitely shows a big part of the problem. Mental illness is often associated with being crazy. Dangerous maybe even. And yes, there are cases in which that is true. But, more often than not, crazy has nothing to do with it. They are just normal people with an illness of the brain.

It’s time that we start seeing mental illness for what it is. An illness.
We have to get rid of the notion that mental illness is self inflicted, not a “real” disease, and that people with a mental illness are weak of even crazy. How would you feel if your leg was broken and someone told you to “just think positively and exercise more”? You’d probably feel insulted, right? I know some people will think this is a ridiculous analogy, but this in fact is exactly what’s happening.
I’m not sure why it’s so hard for people to accept mental illness is real. I guess part of it is because if you’ve never experienced it, it is hard, if not impossible to imagine what its like and therefore is not relatable. Maybe because the behavior of someone with a mental illness can differ from “the norm”.

It can definitely be challenging to be around someone with a mental illness. Take depressed people, they’re not exactly fun to be around with (believe me, I know). Just try to keep in mind that it’s pretty hard to be good company when your world is nothing more than a big black hole. And if you think it can’t be as bad as someone tells you; multiply their story by ten and you will have a glimpse at what they’re going through. The darkness and despair of a depression just can’t be described in words.
I know most people mean well, but please do NOT give someone with a mental illness “advice” about what will “cure” them. Believe me, they have tried. If you really care about someone, read about their illness and the best you can do, is simply to genuinely listen without any judgement (unfortunately that proves to very difficult for a lot of people).

The problem with the stigma of mental illness is that it makes it hard for people to admit that they suffer from it and prevents them to seek help. After all, no one likes to be seen as a hypochonder, weak or crazy. So, on top of their illness, they also have to deal with this enormous stigma, making them feel unheard and ashamed of themselves.

I’m no longer ashamed of saying I suffer from depression, but I definitely have been. That doesn’t mean I like to talk about it, especially to people I don’t know. Not because I’m ashamed. I know I didn’t bring this on myself. It’s because it takes too much energy to try to explain (more likely try to convince) that it’s really an illness and not me being lazy and feeling blue.
Though, I have to admit I still have moments that I feel guilty about being depressed. After all, I have a good life. I have a wonderful husband, a lovely daughter, live in a nice house, have friends, yet, I’m not happy. Having all this, I’m “supposed” to be happy. I feel guilty for not having a clean house and having all the laundry done, even though I’m a stay at home mom and have plenty of time. I feel guilty for not doing more with my family. I’m very grateful to have a wonderful, understanding husband, who reminds that’s not because I’m lazy or don’t care, but because I’m ill.

Please help break the stigma of mental illness by being open about it and acknowledging it’s just another illness and nothing to be ashamed about.


Comment by Thomas Claudius Huber on 2017-05-06 13:34:38 -0700

Hi Sandra,

great article! I came across it via Twitter (as I follow your husband on twitter).

I started to read about mental illness and depressions when a talented – maybe the most talented ever –
German soccer player stopped his career at the age of 27 due to a depression:

I read about his mental illness and his life after the professional career. From what I read I think people having a mental illness fear to be considered as weak, they fear that others think they’re crazy etc, exactly how you describe it. And yes, not everyone understood that it’s a real illness. You can’t go out for a run to “free your brain” and break a depression.

Your post is great to increase the awareness and acceptance of mental illness! And hey, you’re not weak, in fact you’re very strong, else you wouldn’t have been able to write such a fantastic, honest and direct article on mental illness.

I wish you all the best,

Comment by Sandra Hoekstra on 2017-05-06 15:24:58 -0700

Hi Thomas,

Thank you for reading my article and your kind response, that means a lot to me.


Comment by Arun on 2017-05-06 21:12:14 -0700

Hi Sandra

I was one of those people who used to think depression was something purely in someone’s mind until I married my wife whose sister also suffers from it. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough resources out there for people to educate themselves and the fact that you can’t see an obvious physical symptom makes things even harder. Thank you for writing this. Now I can point people who don’t understand mental illness here to help educate them.


Comment by Sandra Hoekstra on 2017-05-07 10:18:42 -0700

Hi Arun,

I’m sorry you learned about depression because you know someone who suffers from it. I feel honored that you took the time to read it and consider it to be helpful to educate people. I would really appreciate it if you would refer people here and if you think it might be helpful, please do feel free to share this article.

Thank you.