“But have you tried being happy?” Mental illness and social assumptions.

Fuck depression and fuck mental illness. No, really. Excuse my language but that shit is not okay.

I know at least 6 people who are currently struggling with mental illnesses, all involving elements of depression. Some are so bad they’re housebound. Some, like me, carry on like they’re a normal human. Because they are. When you look at the stats it’s hard to see that as anything but the truth: 1 in 5 Kiwi women, and 1 in 8 Kiwi men, will have at least one major depressive episode in their lives (depression.org.nz). When, on average, 17% of the population will struggle with depression alone during their lives it ceases to be an unusual or uncommon disease (Note: these stats do not include bipolar disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and schizophrenia – all illnesses that bring depression-like symptoms – or any other mental illness).

There are many theories on why mental illness is so prevalent in modern society. Some have suggested it’s a product of our high-stress lives. Others have suggested that the only thing that’s changed in modern times is our understanding of it; that mental illness has always been a pervasive issue but was infrequently diagnosed or understood (papers such as this discussing the common problems faced with identification and diagnoses show this clearly). No matter the reasoning, it’s evident that diagnosis of mental illness has, to some, become worryingly common.

As I write this I wrestle with my own demons. I feel like the colour has gone from my world and the sound has been turned down. Thankfully, I know this is only temporary. I have patches like this but they don’t usually last more than a few days. I have been on SSRIs for anxiety, and the depression it brings, for two years. Prior to taking them my illness, which came on suddenly in my early 20s, was crippling. A coworker once found me locked in my office at work having a full-blown panic attack: I was sitting on the floor, hyperventilating and in floods of tears. And I couldn’t tell them why. My fears weren’t real or founded; the doctors told me my mind had created anxieties to fill the void left by completing my university studies. They said I was so accustomed to living in a high stress state that my body was trying to recreate it.

Those were dark times and I am glad I have moved on from them, not only thanks to medication and professional care but thanks to significant changes in my lifestyle aimed at supporting a healthy mental state. Asking for help wasn’t easy but I am glad I did it. Now, I am someone who can manage my mind through exercise, good food, and meditation and mindfulness. It’s allowing me, with my doctor’s help, to finally begin weaning myself off my medication. I know this makes me fortunate.

With the clarity of mind the last two years have brought my concerns have evolved:  These days I worry not about my mental state but the way society perceives it. We look on physical illnesses with a reverence and gravity that many struggle to attribute to sicknesses of the mind. In my life I have seen people be repeatedly allowed time off for colds, flus and various diseases without fear this will make them seem less capable of doing their jobs. But there is still a hesitancy to speak up about needing time off or care for one’s mental health. There is still a persistent fear that you will either be a) judged a slacker or b) judged weak and unstable. I am not saying this from research but from the experiences of myself and my friends. I feel this about the admissions in this article even as I write them.

From an incredibly young age we are brought up to understand that sick people are limited in their capacities for day-to-day life. But, unless we or someone close to us suffers it, we are not brought up with the same awareness of mental health. You only have to think about some of the questionable advice that’s handed out to those suffering to know this is true. When was the last time someone suggested you just try *not* having a cold? Or a kidney stone? Or cancer? Did they tell you it’s all in your body as if that somehow invalidated it and proved you had the power to overcome it with a quick self-slap? If it doesn’t work for chemical and biological problems of the torso, arms and legs then why would it work for the brain? And yet this is the “advice” many hand out when confronted with the uncomfortable realities of mental illness.

It’s time society started to understand the costs and far-reaching consequences of depression and mental health issues. “[A] new report estimates the global cost of mental illness at nearly $2.5T (two-thirds in indirect costs) in 2010, with a projected increase to over $6T by 2030.” (NIMH) What does that actually mean? Most low-socioeconomic countries have a GDP of less than 1 trillion dollars. That means the total worldwide cost of mental illness by 2030 will be *six times* what the poorest countries currently generate in gross domestic product in a year, comparable and almost equal to cancer care. And most of these costs are not direct medical care; they’re lost income and time, social support expenses and ongoing disability costs.

Take a moment to absorb that information. Cancer, a disease with worldwide recognition as one of the most serious health problems humans face, costs approximately the same long-term as mental illness. And people are still asking those suffering depression to “just be happy”.

It’s time for changes. Education and awareness is probably our best bet. And honesty. I’m done pretending I’m always okay. If admitting that sometimes I’m sick makes me weak then that’s a burden I will have to bear. I can only get better when I acknowledge that I am unwell.


Please be aware the statements and statistics in this article are strictly informational and are not intended to offer advice or replace instructions provided by your healthcare professional.

If you feel you or anyone you love is suffering from undiagnosed or poorly managed mental illness please seek professional help from your GP or encourage them to see theirs. If at any time you feel you can’t cope you can call Lifeline, or one of their sister organisations, on 0800 543 354.

You are not alone.