If you are gay or are related to someone who is gay just reflect for a moment on what the gay rights movement has meant to you in terms of dignity, self-respect, pride, opportunity and the diminution of stigma and shame.
It is has been a phenomena of seismic proportions most recently capped by the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Encouraged and inspired by that change in attitude, I am writing this to heighten awareness, understanding, respect and compassion for another group of people who are still stigmatized: those who live with major depression in general and bipolar illness in particular. These 20 million Americans are compelled to live not only with the pain of their illness but with the added burden of stigma, shame and loneliness that so frequently accompanies this condition.
Stigma can be powerful and dehumanizing. Fear which often lurks behind stigma results in shame for the individual who bears that stigma. This can make it almost impossible to acknowledge let alone disclose one’s illness to others.
It is time to join the growing the movement to fight stigma, prejudice, shame and discrimination toward people suffering with a depression and bipolar illness.
More people — particularly those who have dealt effectively with the disease — need to come forward to acknowledge they have been treated for this condition. It may be frightening initially as it was years ago for gay men and women who found the courage to stand up and speak out. But it is imperative that more people successfully living with the disease step forward. This takes considerable courage, but living an authentic life is the greatest source of happiness.
A little-known resource in this regard is the support group which is now a mainstay of treatment for people with a depression and bipolar illness. We have such a group in Greenwich for people suffering with a mood disorder named DBSA Greenwich (www.dbsagreenwichct.com). In our support group people learn to speak freely, comfortably, and honestly about their condition in a welcoming, supportive, safe environment.
Mood disorders strike across all lines of gender, race, class and education. However, if the movement to fight shame and stigma is to succeed it must be led by respected members of the community including professionals such as physicians and attorneys. This presents a major obstacle since it is very difficult for thousands of doctors, lawyers and other highly trained professionals who suffer or have suffered with a mood disorders to speak out.
The issue is not that depression or bipolar illness is not observed in doctors, lawyers and other highly esteemed and respected professions.
According to an often cited Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 occupations, researchers found that lawyers lead the nation with the highest incidence of depression. Lawyers, as a group, are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than the average person.
According to the American Psychiatric Association and numerous other sources, depression is the most likely trigger for suicide.
Depression is more common in the medical profession than in the general population, with a lifetime prevalence of 12 percent in male physicians and 18 percent in females. The overall physician suicide rate cited by most studies has been between 28 and 40 per 100,000, compared with the overall rate in the general population of 12.3 per 100,000. Overall, physicians are more than twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. Although physicians have a lower mortality risk from cancer and heart disease relative to the general population they have a significantly higher risk of dying from suicide. It would take the equivalent of three averagesized graduating classes of a medical school to replace 400 physicians who kill themselves each year.
Many famous and highly successful people have experienced bipolar disorder and have spoken about it publicly. For example: Dick Cavett, Jane Pauley, Richard Dreyfuss, Frank Sinatra, Stephen Fry and many others, including Katherine Brooks the director, writer, and filmmaker, who said: “I don’t believe bipolar holds me back as a person or a filmmaker. I actually believe it makes everything I do have more meaning, passion, and purpose.”
The list goes on and on … but sadly, with few exceptions, most doctors and lawyers hesitate to acknowledge having bipolar illness or “depression” for fear it will have a damaging effect on their careers.
Winston Churchill, who experienced the challenges of being bipolar himself, once said “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all the others.”
My hope is more people who have successfully dealt with depression or bipolar illness will find the courage to share their experiences, using every tool of traditional and social media. It will take the efforts of many courageous people to change public attitudes, achieve societal acceptance, humanize mental illness, and break the chain of stigma and shame. I am confident that with enough grit and determination this seismic shift will occur. For the sake of the 20 million who suffer with these illnesses, my hope is that this change will occur as rapidly as possible.
Dr. John S. Tamerin lives and practices psychiatry in Greenwich. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell/Weill School of Medicine.