IRL: let’s end the stigma over depression in making a better me and you

In the latest of our In Real Life series, teacher Robert Macmillan shares his journey through depression, with thoughts on what we can all do to help

I am so honoured to have been asked by Positively Scottish to note down some thoughts on wellbeing, in particular my own depression.

I write this as a teacher but recognise that my experiences, symptoms and challenges are faced not only by other public sector workers but also by people more generally.

I have asked pupils to avoid belittling mental illness, or those suffering from it. I mentioned that one in three Scots adults will at some point suffer from a mental illness and that this would most likely be depression. In the back of my mind was the fact that I was probably one of them and some of the pupils in front of me were also likely to become the same.

I believe that teaching is a caring profession that is in need of care – as are so many others. The stigma that is still attached to mental health issues forms a barrier to people admitting such illnesses to themselves. This is turn makes institutions and workplaces less able to support people when they suffer.

This summer of violent attacks will not help matters. It seems that whenever there is a white suspect, the immediate suggestion is that they will have some sort of mental illness. How can we expect people to admit to even mild depression if they fear that they are being lumped into the same category as mass murderers?

What makes this situation worse is work insecurity and associated attendance management policies. They come laced with words of support but with a central desire to reduce absence and increase compliance.

I found myself challenging this status quo in two ways. First, I blogged as part of the #teacher5aday wellbeing series at the start of the year, little grasping that as I did so, my own black dog was loosening its jaws, ready to take its biggest and deepest bite of me yet.

Second, after that bite I openly admitted that I was suffering from depression and after still failing to recover from it, I eventually blogged about it.

In so doing I have come across many people who themselves have suffered. I have found, as well as given, solace through publicly joining them.

Some folks have responded to my blogposts or tweets as demonstrating some sort of bravery. To be honest, I do not feel brave nor do I feel as though I have the zeal of the convert.

Being so self-critical means I am more likely to feel that deep down it’s just self-publicity that I am after. The more retweets, likes, link clicks and shares I have received, the happier I have been.

I also suppose that my openness in saying that I was suffering from depression was to ensure that there was little doubt in the minds of others. Scotching rumours at the start has meant there is no need to be the subject of the idle gossip and chatter of others (if that even matters).

On the one hand, I cannot recommend that everyone and anyone who suffers from a mental health issue is equally open. Yet, on the other, it is necessary in order that others feel less of a stigma about doing so.

Those who may feel they are suffering must have easier access to help and support, whenever it is needed. That may take folks like me – and you – to be more open and to let people in on our conditions.

Yet, there is a glaring uncertainty that I still face: my return to work.

It’s easy to tweet and post about my condition. I do so not to a face but to a screen. It could be said that well wishes are also returned in this way. An unanswered question is: how will colleagues treat me upon my return? Will kid gloves and sympathy be the order of the day? Will people be more distant to ‘give me space’? Will they become closer to show empathy, understanding and care?

I have called for institutions to become better at looking after their people. This though will be undertaken through the human interactions that so often build us up or bring us down. For many it is these that bring about people’s depression, or form the barrier to their acceptance of their illness.

We must all become more self-aware as to the impact on ourselves and others of what we do and say.

The best me, the best you, the best us are all yet to come, and what’s more, we get to make them. I believe that we will need to de-stigmatise mental illness as one step in bringing them about.

Robert blogs at He’s @robfmac on Twitter.

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