What Will It Take to Make Depression a “Good Cause”?


2305701220_0fc3d01183_bOnce a year or so I’m tempted to shave my head like I’m going through chemo to make my depression visible to others. I’m thinking if I pulled a Sinead O’Connor, people would take the illness seriously.

I saw a commercial the other day for some leukemia association, and I was jealous.

I know that’s not the response the advertising team was looking for. But, as someone who is now responsible for fundraising for a foundation for treatment-resistant depression and chronic mood disorders, I thought about how much easier my job would be if the people for whom I’m raising the money actually looked sick.

I have no problem getting dough for Catholic Relief Service’s Operation Rice Bowl that feeds poor kids in Africa. The paper carton which you load with dollars and cents dons the photo of a beautiful African child with the message: “$1 a day for 40 days of Lent means one month of food for a family, two years of seed for a farmer, and three months of clean water for four families.” For other relief projects, you see the folks with bony arms and legs, extended stomachs, and white, crooked teeth that contrast their dark skin. Who wouldn’t fork over cash to them?

However, asking for dough for depression is a whole other story. I may as well be asking to save the mosquitos. At some level, I believe stigma exists in each and every one of us. We think the person who can’t get upright in the morning is too lazy, stupid, or addicted. Their condition is their fault. If it’s your sister who can’t keep a job because of her mood disorder, she isn’t trying hard enough and she won’t do yoga. If it’s your neighbor who has been depressed her whole life, she wants to be depressed on some level: she is unwilling to move beyond her baggage and do the hard work of recovery. Depression is a white and blue-collar disease that is invisible to the public, and therefore it’s not real. Everyone who suffers from it has contracted it by their lack of discipline and good sense, their negativity and stubbornness.

I have always been very open about my struggles with depression and anxiety to most people. But there are some social groups to whom I have not divulged everything and probably won’t because whenever I mention my mood dips, they look at me as though I am a leper in need of Jesus’ healing. I went back and forth about whether or not I should include certain people in my fundraising email because my “ask” was connected to my personal story.

I wrote,  “In the 10 years I’ve spent writing and researching mental health issues, I have received thousands of emails and letters from readers who have already tried medication and alternative therapies, but still feel hopeless. They wake up each day wanting to die. For six years I lived that way. Only in the last four months have I woken up without those thoughts, and my passion for creating a dynamic, supportive community has been an important component in my healing.”

I went on to say that if everyone gave five dollars, I would have met my financial goal.

I had high expectations for a women’s group I’m involved in because together we have raised a lot of money for prostate cancer, autism, and other good causes. Even though disclosing my struggle in the way I did made me feel incredibly vulnerable, I thought it was worth it because the group cares about good causes.

No one responded or donated. Not even a, “Thanks for the email … I’ll look at it when I have a minute.”

The truth is that depression isn’t a “good cause,” not to most of the world anyway.  If people are sick through their own fault (most of us think on some level), why should we have to pull out our wallets to save these pathetic people? That’s their problem, not our problem. It’s somewhat like the rationale we use to feel okay about walking past a begger: he wouldn’t have to beg if he simply got a job, and any money I give him will feed his addiction.

I was disappointed, yes.

Hurt, yes.

But not surprised.

When you get the constant feedback that I do running a depression community, you see the real picture of stigma today. When people sign up for my community, they are SCARED TO DEATH someone is going to find out that they are on it, that they have depression. Most of them make up pseudonyms or use their initials. “I’m sorry,” they explain to me, “it’s just that I need a job, and I think I would get fired if my boss ever found out I suffered from depression.”

I get it. They are right. They might, indeed, get fired. But what does that say about the current state of awareness of this illness. THAT’S WHAT IT IS, AFTER ALL. AN ILLNESS!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s the only damn illness I know of that has people so ashamed to name. A top executive lawyer confided in me me the other day about her very successful daughter that was just hospitalized for depression. PLEASE NEVER TELL ANYONE!!!!!!!! PLEASE. PROMISE ME!!! My God, it was like she was telling me her offspring robbed a bank on her way to a Playboy photo shoot.

When I was hospitalized for my depression, my mom told relatives and friends I was there for internal bleeding. Now this is a very compassionate person who doesn’t blame me in any way for my illness. But I guess she just couldn’t stomach all the judgment she would get from family members. Kind of like my letter. “Hello??? Anyone out there??? Did no one just get my email where I said that after six years of wanting to be dead I’m waking with new thoughts and would therefore like to help a few folks get better?”

I did get some profound responses and incredibly generous donations. I want to make that clear.

However, the next time I send one out, I’m thinking of including a photo of me and a few people I know with shaved heads. Or maybe I’ll just use Catholic Relief Service’s photo. That might make people think depression is legit, which, of course, it is.

Join Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

First published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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6 Responses
  1. KGH

    A SAMHSA initiative in our area had billboards of smiling, beautiful little kids advertising the need to watch for symptoms of mental illness in children. Those of us with children suffering with mental illness thought it was hilarious but indicative of the need to “cleanse” the image of real depression–our kids certainly didn’t look like that. Munch’s “The Scream” was what my daughter looked like a year ago. She’s getting better.

  2. Jeff Duggan

    Another great article Therese. Before my last serious attempt to end my life I would have rather been a mosquito than a human with depression. At least mosquito’s have the attention of people. They have sprays and nice burning candles to keep them away. What do we have? If most people think you have depression or another mental illness they seem concerned it may be contagious.

    I wear a bracelet everyday as a visible reminder to myself and others that I have depression. Those who know me understand what the bracelet means. Those who do not know me just think it’s a bracelet that provides balance or is one for a good cause. It is my simple and visible jesture that I have an illness that no one can see or feel. I have an illness that can cause great harm to myself and others. I have an illness that I really wish I could yell from a mountain top that it is OK to have and with proper treatment I can function normally and be productive. I also have an illness that I wish I could help others with so they don’t get to the darkest spot the disease can take someone.

    Therese, you are an inspiration to me and many others. Keep up your great work, insight, and focus on those of us who support you. We all need you.

  3. Depression is NOT an illness that anyone wants or chooses. The RELUCTANCE of people, amongst them even mental-health-care professionals, to help those individuals who are disabled by it, is REPREHENSIBLE! I guess we live in an abhorrent, throw away human world at the moment, & sadly depressives get thrown out too.

  4. Bravo, Therese! I and our whole society owe you a huge debt for continuing to beat the drum, repeatedly and selflessly risking to tell your story for the good of others, working tirelessly to help me and countless others (GBB, PBB, BBF, etc.), exploring the depths and nuances of this illness, helping to connect the dots of the complex symptoms and causes, and referencing the many published yet unknown resources and experts related to depression and mental illness.

    You know well that there is no “one size fits all” diagnosis or treatment, let alone remedy. You continue to open doors for me and others to alter our perspectives and challenge the stigma borne by even those of us afflicted with depression.

    You are a salve to my wounds, an angel, hero, saint, friend.