The Struggle to Confront My Own Stigma

As a graduate of a public liberal arts university, I was confident that I carried no stigma against mental illness. I had friends with various disorders, and I felt only compassion for them. I was sure I was above the stigma. 

And then people started telling me I might be depressed. I knew it might be true, but I didn’t want to believe it. I’d never had health issues. I doubled down on my healthy-living tactics: I slept at least eight hours each night. I started yoga. I exercised every day. I tried meditation. I practiced gratitude. But my depressive symptoms kept getting worse. I cried bitterly every single day, usually triggered by insignificant stressors — like the time my favorite Vietnamese restaurant forgot to put tofu in my pho takeout, or because I had to get out of bed. I sometimes cried on the way to work, even though I liked my job. I often cried myself to sleep. Getting up in the morning was always hard. My face would be swollen, my body lethargic — even after those eight or nine or ten hours of sleep.

I did everything I could to avoid thinking of myself as someone who was depressed. Instead of going to therapy, I hired a personal development coach to straighten out my “attitude problem.” After months of me crying to her via our weekly Skype calls, she finally suggested that I “cast a wider net” to find solutions to my issues. Somehow, that was what convinced me. Two days later I was in a clinic, and a week after that I’d started a daily dosage of an antidepressant called citalopram or Celexa.

I felt deeply conflicted about the decision. On the one hand, I knew intellectually that this was a good decision. On the other hand, I felt undeniably ashamed of it. It shocked me to realize that I hadn’t avoided internalizing mental health stigma after all. I wanted to claim the decision as something I didn’t need to feel ashamed of, so I posted the following status on Facebook:

I took a pill today. Actually just half a pill. I’ll start taking whole pills next week. Each pill is 20mg of Celexa, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. An antidepressant.

I am sure this will surprise a lot of people. In my photos on social media, I don’t look depressed. In my everyday life, I work hard to channel enthusiasm and positivity. I am lucky that I do not have clinical depression. However, I am taking antidepressants because for the past two years I’ve struggled with depressive symptoms. I feel intense guilt for my unhappiness, because I know I have SO much to be grateful for. But on a daily basis, I feel brittle— too often on the brink of tears. I have been trying many things for a long time that should have stabilized my emotions, but they haven’t been enough, so now I’m trying medication.

This is especially strange for me because I don’t even take Advil when I have a headache. For antidepressants like this, the list of potential side effects is alarming. The risk of dangerous interaction with alcohol terrifies me. I’m also fighting my own sense of guilt and shame for wanting (needing?) these pills.

I’m hoping the potential benefits are worth all the costs and risks. What really drives me to try it is knowing that one of the top risk factors for major depressive disorder is having sub-clinical depressive symptoms. Even though it feels like some kind of personal failure, I know this decision is a good one for me right now and for my future. It’s a smart, healthy decision — not an indication of failure.

I’m sharing this in part to convince myself. Because I feel ashamed and afraid even though I know I shouldn’t. I’m also hoping that hearing about my experience might help someone else take the right steps to care for their mental health despite any stigma. At first I thought, what if this pill doesn’t work for me, or what if the side effects are too much, or what if I end up ok after just a couple of months? Or what if people with full-blown major depressive disorder think I’m just an attention-seeker because my symptoms are sub-clinical? I wanted to use these what-ifs as an excuse not to post this terrifyingly vulnerable message. But the what-ifs don’t negate the message. It’s crazy how I don’t even have a clinical disorder, and I still feel hesitant to share that I’m simply trying antidepressant meds. I adamantly oppose the stigma!”

The outpouring of support I received in return was totally unexpected and hugely meaningful to me. More than a dozen people commented publicly on the post to share their own mental health struggles, and several more messaged me personally to share and offer words of encouragement. Stigma is real, it’s out there, but our generation is desperate to connect on a level that passes over any stigma. I felt that very intensely in the response I saw to my Facebook announcement, as well in the responses I saw to the podcast series I subsequently produced about depression and mental health.

I could not be happier to say that my antidepressant medication drove back my depressive symptoms. What a relief it is to not feel constantly on edge, and to always be wondering when I’d next burst into tears! To be able to wake up feeling tentative hope for what the day might bring me, instead of a constant, generalized despair. I hope anyone reading my story will also find the courage to ignore the internal whispers of guilt and self-criticism, and get the help that is needed. Let’s all do our part to fight the stigma that still exists but is gradually, slowly receding. We’re winning this fight!


Caroline Leland is a freelance writer from Tarboro, North Carolina. Her portfolio includes radio stories on NPR, numerous articles and personal essays in regional magazines, and a podcast series produced for a health-innovation start-up. Caroline holds a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.




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