Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Mental illness still has a stigma

Jono Pryor shared his feelings about losing a close friend to suicide on television's Jono and Ben Show. Coming clean about mental illness is easier said than done.
Jono Pryor and Ben Boyce hug on their TV show on Thursday night.
Jono Pryor and Ben Boyce hug on their TV show on Thursday night.

Like many people, I admired comedian Jono Pryor's courage in sharing his raw feelings on live television about losing a friend to suicide. He urged people who were struggling with depression to open up about their mental health.

He said: "No one thinks less of you for talking about it... no one thinks less of you for taking medicine."

These are valiant words. If only they were true.

A friend of mine, a writer, takes Zoloft, an antidepressant. She went on the medication after a painful life event. The crisis has passed and she has now recovered but she still takes a third of a 20mg pill each day, fiddly, cutting them up with a knife. This is a tiny dose. Anyway, my friend started a new job, in a creative industry. I won't say what it is as I don't want to identify her, but she wasn't being an air traffic controller or a heart surgeon or anything like that. She declared the medication on her work insurance form, but was informed as a result she did not qualify for workplace cover.

Her employer said: To extend to full cover, the insurers have queries regarding the condition "Anxiety" (They supplied the weird speechmarks, as if anxiety is like "time travelling" or "goblins"). "When was she diagnosed? What was the trigger for diagnosis? How long has she been taking medication? Did she have any other remedies in place to control her anxiety?" (Yeah, gin and rescue remedy, douches.)

So much for no one thinking less of you for taking medication. And this was in the brouhaha of creatives, those who ought to be familiar with the artistic temperament being "touched with fire", to use Kay Redfield Jamison's description.

And there I was thinking we had become so enlightened, even rugby players are encouraged to talk about their mental health. (As long as you still remain in beast mode, of course.)

But reality check: Turns out there is still a high cost for most people in coming out about suffering from mental illness, or even just admitting they are struggling with day to day life.

Another friend of mine has a highly respected but stressful job in the law, a profession in which brute stoicism and an ox-like constitution are prized. He says if he went and saw a therapist to talk through some horrific cases and his colleagues found out it would be a significant black mark against his name, an admission he wasn't up to the job. He wouldn't risk it.

So much for no one thinking less of you for talking about it.

The fact is, it's naïve to believe being open about mental illness comes without a price - and no one can predict what it will be. When you are suffering with depression, you already feel unsafe, and if you get up the guts to share, especially at work, and don't get a supportive response, the whole world feels even more perilous.

And support means different things to different people. Sometimes the most supportive thing you can do, is non-gushing.

My writer friend: "What's happened since is now heaps of people look at me slightly differently, and keep asking me if I am okay with a sort of worried look in their eyes."

I have written about my own experience of depression and it still gets that embarrassing who-just-farted response, as if you have flouted the rules of polite society.

Once you declare publicly you have suffered from depression it becomes your "thing", your identity, a stain you can never remove. (Kind people still sidle up to me in the yoghurt aisle at New World: "So, DHC, how are you doing?" with their best concerned bedside manner face on. Me: "I'm great thanks! Look, fig and honey!")

We are wired to like heuristics, easy ways to pigeonhole someone - so to some people no matter what else I am engaged in doing, I will always be a headline: she's batshit crazy.

The pharmaceutical industry may be complicit in conferring this "mentally ill" identity on people who take antidepressants, because there is more money in it. To the billion dollar pill factory you are not an individual who simply needed a bit of help with your neurotransmitters at a tough time, you are trapped, labelled mentally-ill, unwell, marked. You are going to need Big Pharma forever. Contrast how much encouragement there is to take the pills, compared to the information about "discontinuation syndrome" and the not insignificant discomfort of coming off meds.

No wonder being mentally-ill can feel like your whole identity. But it's not. It is only one part of who you are.

Good on you Jono, for saying what you said. I really liked that you two blokes could hug at the end too.

The truth is, we're all damaged, we're all frightened, we're all freaks. It's the human condition. There is still not a lot of encouragement, out there, in the real world, to reveal this part of ourselves. Because as long as the only way to get approval is by being tough, by pushing through, winning and vanquishing and prevailing, being honest about our feelings will always come with a price tag.

- NZ Herald

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