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Dr. Gena Vennikandam


Shattering the Stigma of Depression

By Dr. Gena Vennikandam

Since the mid-20th century, when cognitive psychotherapy was being introduced, depression has been talked about in hushed tones in small circles. Sadly today, depression can still be seen as the elephant in the room, a condition that is not getting the light it deserves and is gravely misunderstood.

It’s mind-boggling to me the way our society regards mental health issues, namely depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it affects about 14.8 million

American adults (not including the undiagnosed cases). It is more prevalent than cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and coronary heart disease, and can be just as serious when left untreated. Approximately 30,000 Americans die due to suicide in any given year. Of those, over 60 percent struggled with major depression alone.

And here we are, a nation that has progressed and matured on topics of discrimination, such as religion, racism and sexuality that were once too taboo for discussion. We cannot, however, seem to accept depression as something worth the attention.

This pressure from our society often paralyzes those who suffer from depression in silence, afraid to speak up in fear of judgment from others and from within themselves. Often, there is relief when one is able to identify what ails them and to learn how to make oneself better. Unfortunately, this is one condition where the diagnosis can make one feel embarrassed, inadequate and weak.

Some could argue that this is the result of current events and the media. With all the mass shootings that have occurred in recent years, the media is quick to point out that the person who orchestrated the shootings suffered from a mental illness. This may be so, but that automatically programs many to think that all people who suffer from some mental disorder like depression are also capable of such atrocious acts; that they are equivalent to those who lack humanity.

We’re too quick to judge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of American adults who state they struggle with depression is one in ten. That one in ten may be your friendly next-door neighbor, who occasionally babysits your kids, has the spare keys to your house and makes you muffins just because it’s Tuesday.

We need to be aware that depression is a disease that can affect anyone. It does not discriminate between gender, age, race or socioeconomic status.

The causes and effective treatment of depression are continuously under research. Newer developments are even confirming a possible structural component behind it. It has been noted during neuroimaging that there are certain structural changes of the brain present in those with depression, compared to those nondepressed.

“The brain is not a fixed organ, it changes with our experiences. As we learn, our brain changes and as bad things happen our brain can also change. Things can go wrong with it just like any other part of the body,” says Olu Ajilore, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of  Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System.

It has also been identified to develop from a number of complicated risk factors including brain chemistry, medications, personality, genetics, medical problems and stressful life events. Many are not receiving proper medical attention and surveillance due to lack of acknowledging their condition and seeking the appropriate medical care. With the combination of psychotherapy and antidepressant medication, it is one of the most manageable mental illnesses, and about 80 percent of patients respond well to treatment.

“This is a disease process; this is not something that you can just get over. It is something that needs to be taken care of or it might just get worse,” says Michael Malone, DO, family physician at Sinai Medical Group.

What can we do as a society to break the ignorance that surrounds depression and defeat yet another taboo? We need to humanize this illness. Although debilitating, depression does not have to hinder a full and successful life. In fact, those are more of the stories we need to hear—and they do exist.

“The more people with mental illness come out of the shadows, the more we hear success stories because they sought treatment,” says Ajilore.

In Chicago, we have outlets for people to learn, get involved and find support for living with depression, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We should also integrate mental health education and awareness into our education system. Teaching and addressing depression from this standpoint will help those in the future realize that there is nothing shameful or weak about living with a mental illness.

It is pivotal for us to raise awareness on this subject in a way that caters to people of all different backgrounds. We have made progress in the last 60 years, but we still have a long way to go. Let’s not take another 60 to get to where we should be.

Published in Chicago Health Winter/Spring 2014

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