Why I believe debates such as my psychology course’s are helping towards reducing mental health stigma (and how it’s encouraged me to talk about my experiences).

It’s been well over a month now since university started, and it’s fair to say the real nitty gritty work has started to be set now – essay deadlines are less than a month away, and this time every single mark will contribute towards my final degree grade, which is daunting to say the least. Seminar work has also stepped up a gear – for one of my elective modules, Mental Health and Disorder, we’ve been asked to pick a side of an argument, compile a ton of research about it, before bringing it all back to the classroom to debate it! I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed debating – whether it’s been a light hearted day-time TV debate on should high heels be compulsory in the work place, or serious tense political battles around election time, I’ve found them to be intriguing, as it opens your eyes to an array of perspectives on an issue.

The debate topic of choice for my elective: ‘Is depression over-diagnosed?’. This has always been a question I’ve sat on the fence on, as I’ve switched multiple times from believing it is, but then seeing the argument from another way round and changing my mind completely! It’s also something I’ve strayed away from contributing my views on; I love observing debating, but I’ve purposely kept away from adding my own arguments in the fear of being offensive, and besides, depression is a very real and personal struggle for many people I know. I guess you can say that I am not an argumentiative person, and all my life I’ve kept in the safe zone middle ground.

Alas, for this debate we have been requested to join a side pretty swiftly, so I picked the ‘for over-diagnosis’ group, still not 100% entirely convinced about my decision. Personally, I’ve held the view that depression is a word which is thrown around a lot by people in a casual sense – they will for example be gutted about someone leaving The Great British Bake Off one week, and say that the result has left them feeling ‘depressed’. No, that’s just sadness – in a casual sense people are usually very unaware of the implications behind depression – in its clinical definition major depressive disorder (MDD) triggers feelings of despair and hopelessness, and its day to day effects are powerful enough to leave people ‘paralysed’; unable to carry out normal functioning and socalising, leaving them confined to their room. So, I guess I selected the ‘for’ side as self-diagnosis for depression is certainly higher than perhaps what its true rate is. Also, I’ve always disagreed with giving a grieving person a diagnosis of depression for instance, because missing a deceased loved one is a very natural process, and is very different perhaps in its terms of onset than someone who has always suffered from MDD.

Back to researching the debate itself, I firstly scoured the internet for journals and psychology cited articles spelling out the arguments for each side concerning the over-diagnosis of depression, but to my surprise after hours of searching I was still at a loose end. It was at this point that I had a brain-wave; at the end of the day it is members of the public who first hand experience depression or surround people with it, so I posted the same question on Facebook and Quora Digest, not expecting a huge amount of responses.

The response has been overwhelming; many of my Facebook friends and complete strangers who never even knew I existed before I posted the question on Quora, took their time to post thoughtful and honest responses arguing the side of the debate they support. Before this I’d never would have expected as many people, espcially those my age, to have been so open and frank about their experiences with mental health, as sadly to a degree there is a certain amount of stigma to admitting you struggle with a mental health disorder. It turns out that a lot of people agree that others are falsely self-diagnosing themselves with depression, but rather than critisising them for being ignorant, they acknowleged that these people also need help for other problems they have have as an alternative to MDD. Young people believe that depression isn’t understood enough by the public, so perhaps depression IS over-diagnosed after all by people themselves, but in a clinical setting, the feelings of being too afraid to speak out to a GP may mean that clincially depression may even be under-diagnosed. Another popular point which emerged is that people are often mis-diagnosed as well, as similar conditions such as bipolar are often mislabelled as MDD. The general consensus is that awareness for depression needs to be increased – maybe the amounts of people self-diagnosisng themselves and/or being incorrectly diagnosed will finally decrease. Asking the public has definitely widened my view of MDD and diagnosis way beyond my initial thoughts and feelings of it.

It’s also given me the push to talk about my encounters with mental health – I have not had it almost as tough as some people, but since I’ve been a young teenager I believe I’ve experienced what is known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS); although I’ve never had it formally diagnosed, I’ve always known in my heart it has affected me. Whilst most women feel irritable for a few days just before and after their period, my bad mood would stick with me for two weeks. I’d hide my mood swings, anxiety, anger and emotional unstability during school and away from my friends, but once I’d get home, I’d just crumble! My parents would be treading on eggshells around me, and I felt embarrassed to talk about it to anyone else for years aside of my family circle. This explains partially why I initially opted for the side of the argument suggesting depression is over-diagnosed; PMS would be classified as a type of depression according to the latest diagnostic manual the DSM-5, but I know my symptoms were not as severe or life-affecting as those with MDD, it would feel unjust to say I have depression.

I talk about my PMS in the past tense now because in the last few months, I’ve finally been placed on the ‘pill’, which is something I’ve wanted to go on since I was 13, and it’s helped tremendously! I still have some little issues with mental health – for example, I’m an anxious person in general; I force myself sometimes to do an extra hour of university work at night, because I cannot just sit down at night and relax; I’ve always got to be doing something to feel like I am not behind with my university work. I always worry about being judged by other people for what I wear, and I always assume the worst if a person doesn’t reply to my message, like I will go into overdrive and think of every single scenario about why they didn’t respond, even if it’s nothing to worry about at all!

So what begun as an article about psychology has turned into a platform where I have felt that for the first time I can open up about my mental health more; my PMS and anxiety has made me make certain choices and say certain things to people which I regret, and ultimately has negatively affected friendships and relationships between people and myself. That’s why I have acted the way I’ve done sometimes, and please don’t ever take it personally  – I haven’t meant to act clingy, slightly snap at someone or zone out when someone has been talking to me; that’s my PMS and/or anxiety influencing the way I behave, so I guess I just wanted to apologise for everyone I’ve ever offended, scared or pushed away. It’s a part of me which admittedly at times I’ve been frustrated with, but at the end of the day it is a part of me I cannot completely change, so now I have accepted to live and cope with it, and learn to love and acknowledge this side of me. I’ve only felt able to finally share all this which has been building up inside, after seeing the accepting and beautiful comments from people to my online question ‘Is depression over-diagnosed’?

Depression, and all other mental health disorders need to have their awareness raised, and be taken as seriously as physical illnesses are. As a psychology student, I’m exposed to such awareness every day and that’s why I believe it’s a truely wonderful degree subject to select. And discussions on social networks on topics such as depression is finally lifting the rain cloud over mental health disorders. There is still so much that needs to be worked on of course to remove the stigma away from mental health altogether, but simple steps alone is already making a difference. I’ve decided to talk about my experiences now because I hope it will a) reassure other people who have or have dealt with PMS/anxiety that they are not the only one with these issues, and b) reiterate my point really that no one should be afraid to talk about mental health – opening up will not make you different or weaker than anyone else, but rather will make you appreciate that you are certainly not the only on in the world to be battling some sort of mental health niggle.

One day, everyone will be heard.


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