The Stigma of Mental Illness (and how mistaken that is)

The Stigma of Mental Illness
(and how mistaken that is)
Have you ever wished to have a do over, to roll back some time and have another chance? The first time anyone ever suggested I seek counseling from either a psychologist or psychiatrist was when I was still practicing law, and a partner of mine from Charlotte drove round trip from Charlotte to Raleigh to make the case to me, in person, that I needed help.
                I listened to what he said, agreed to take some action and subsequently called a doctor, only to be told the office I called was then taking no new patients. Satisfied I had kept my promise; I hung up the phone and didn’t try anyone else.
                When I met with Wade Smith on a cold January day about a year later, about two days before I left my law firm and the practice of law forever, I still questioned whether seeing a doctor was really necessary.  In fact, I canceled the first appointment with Dr. Jean Spaulding, a well- regarded psychiatrist in Durham, and didn’t go. I told her I was too busy. 
                Only when all the forces of family, law firm, personal lawyers and friends were against me did I go see her the next day and even then, the law firm had my secretary follow me from Raleigh to Durham to make sure I went.
                I understand the reluctance of people to seek help. I think it comes from fear, pride and the still too prevalent stigma of mental illness…in particular depression.
                This past Friday, at a Raleigh seminar, I asked everyone there if any of them would voluntarily seek counseling for mental health or depression issues. No one raised a hand.
                In Wilmington, a well-known local attorney once told me if he knew any of his peers were seeking mental health counseling, he would not refer any new cases or clients to them…he felt it would be mal practice.
                So I was really struck this weekend when I read online that Rick Warren, the well-known minister from California, and whose son committed suicide, preached at his church about the stigma of mental illness. He wants to develop a series of sermons on the subject of “how to get through what we are going through”.
                That is just the point. Everyone is going through something in life. It is estimated that worldwide over 400 million people suffer from some form of depression. And yet, in this country, we are still afraid of what people might think of us if we seek help, which of course keeps some of us from getting the assistance we need to live more healthy and productive lives.
                I wish I had listened to my friend from Charlotte more carefully. I wish I had kept knocking on doors and placing telephone calls until I found a doctor with whom I could meet and talk. I wish I could turn back that clock and try one more time. But I can’t.
                What I can do is say to you that it is not smart not to seek help if you believe you need it, or if someone close to you suggests that you need to see someone professionally. Actually, it is dumb not to do so. Don’t worry too much about the stigma of it all. That is just the result of people not understanding the truth about depression…that it is an illness, not a character flaw.
                Of all the things I have done in my life, going to a psychiatrist and ultimately Duke Hospital were two of the toughest decisions I have ever made, not because it hurt when I got there, but because I was concerned as to what others might think of me, and what I might think of myself.
                I want such decisions to become one of the easiest decisions in the world. I want people to be unafraid of seeking counseling for depression. I want there never be again a stigma  attached to mental illness.
                If you knew what I now know…that seeing someone professionally and  taking the medication prescribed for me was one of the best things I ever did, you would not be so fearful.
                And the stigma of people knowing about you? Well, I found out that once the newspapers reported it all, then everyone knew, and once they did, I didn’t have to worry about that any more. The personal publicity of depression and seeking help became and remains one of the freeing experiences of my life.
                It could be for you as well.

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