National Depression Screening Day: We need to tackle stigma
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Today is National Depression Screening Day, a day held annually during Mental Illness Awareness Week meant to spread the word about the symptoms of depression, as well as the treatment options available, for the 16.1 million adults in America currently living with major depression. It’s also a day meant to raise awareness about the obstacles that prevent so many people from seeking care.

Chief among these obstacles is stigma — the negative stereotypes, outdated beliefs, and unfair prejudices our society holds against those labeled by a mental illness diagnosis. Until we move past the stigma surrounding mental illness, its effects will allow an epidemic of depression to continue in the U.S. for years to come.  

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As a psychiatrist and the medical director of The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, a residential program that specializes in treating people with depression and a part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System, I see each day that depression is a mental illness that does not discriminate. I’ve also seen it on a personal level, as I, too, have struggled with depression.

While depression can happen to anyone, there are a number of groups who we acknowledge as especially at risk. These groups include anyone with a family history of depression; people with substance abuse issues; women in the postpartum period; people with chronic medical problems; people who have experienced loss or upheaval in their lives; and people on certain medications, particularly narcotics for pain and sedatives, as these cause depression.  

A common, unifying factor between these at-risk groups is social isolation, or loneliness. In the past year, many pieces of literature have focused on the role that social isolation plays in exacerbating depression. In fact, loneliness is a bigger risk factor for health issues than any other risk factors studied—including obesity and smoking.

Stigma, by its design, only serves to make people feel more socially isolated because it labels them as different or less than others. When we make fun of, invalidate, or ignore people with depression, we are putting up roadblocks that decrease the likelihood they will seek treatment and stick with it.

But stigma goes beyond just impacting people with mental illness on the personal level. If you look at the current state of health policy, the effects of stigma are clear. Mental illness and substance use disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide — but less than 5 percent of the national health care budget goes toward mental health.

This insufficient funding is largely spent on medications, encouraging quick fix treatment options instead of using necessary medication alongside proven effective psycho-social treatments.

In addition to providing inefficient treatment options for those with mental illness, this lack of mental health funding also costs the nation financially — with serious mental illness costing Americans $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year.

A recent study from The Lancet published in April 2016 showed that every dollar spent on treating depression and anxiety had a return between $3.30-5.70.

Adequate funding for care is the key to ensuring better mental health outcomes, but until this nation prioritizes mental health care at the same level as physical health care; our current policies are likely to persist.

For a person struggling with depression, the course of treatment they choose can literally mean life or death. In the past year, it has been observed that suicide rates are up across all demographic groups.

While we don’t know the exact cause for this increase, it may reflect an increase in depression in the population. The stakes are high for those living with depression, but unfortunately an average of just 40 percent of adults with mental illness seek treatment in a given year.  

Still, there is some good news: treatment for depression is better than ever for those who can access it and stick with it. Because treatment is possible, we must come together at the community level to make treatment viable for so many individuals who don’t get help due to stigma.

We can start by talking about mental health with others  because this is a topic that can no longer be swept under the rug. Stand up for those with mental illness the next time you hear a person use an insensitive term, such as “crazy,” or comments that suggest those with mental illness are simply weak. If someone you know tells you they have a mental illness, be open to talking about it, but don’t make assumptions about someone based on their diagnosis.

We also need to come together at the national level, because the time for mental health care reform is now. Contact your local, state, and congressional representatives and let them know that mental health matters. Before you vote this November, look at every candidate’s track record on mental health. Once mental health care reform has a place on the national stage, we can take the necessary steps to banish stigma once and for all.

Dr. Thomas Franklin is medical director of The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt Health System, a residential program that specializes in treating people with depression.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.