May 10, 2015

The Stigma of Mental Illness by Sharon Espeseth

Sh-h-h. Don't tell anyone, but I've slipped into depression mode again. This time I made it nine years without a recognizable dip in my serotonin. Yeah! But how did I let my old nemesis sneak up on me again--after all this time? Why didn't I acknowledge depression sooner so I could fend it off? And what do I do about it now that I have admitted to its presence?

I don't talk about my inclination toward depression with everyone. Confessing that one has depression, or mental illness of any kind is humbling. Notice: I didn't say humiliating. Mental illness bears a stigma that suggests the person with mental illness has failed or done something wrong, or that they are faulty, not good enough. For a Christian, there can be other concerns: Will people question my faith? Will they question God's love for me or his power to heal my illness?

With all the possible implications, why am I speaking about my depression in a blog that anyone can read? By sharing my first-hand experience, I may shed light on what depression is or isn't. Depression, for one thing, is not the end of life as one knows it. But a person really does need to make some changes to one's life in order to return to mental wellness.

Although it's impossible to tell my entire story in a blog-sized post, I can tell you a few of the character traits that led me into depression. Perfectionism. A strong work ethic. Overcommitment. Stubbornness. Compassion. Worry. Insecurity. Add a full platter of life's roles and circumstances to the mix and I was in trouble. This can happen to anyone.

I tried counselling, but I didn't get far, because I didn't have the time to reflect, pray, and do other actions or inactions that would help my mental healing. I just kept plodding along with teaching a new grade and being at the helm of an overwhelming class, helping on the farm, raising three teenagers, caring for my aging parents--one with physical disabilities and the other with Alzheimers, their eventual passing, gardening, canning, and early morning writing.

If this seems similar to your circumstances in any way, read on. . .
Can Stock Photo Inc. 

Realizing I was in serious trouble, I started seeing a counsellor in Edmonton, who quickly understood my personality and the problems I was facing in the classroom. I was blessed in that this man had a background in education and the Christian faith. Putting pretensions aside, I laid my chalk on the chalk ledge and we got to work.

About two months later, I crashed and crumpled.

My psychologist and family doctor consulted and agreed that I needed a week off, then two weeks, and finally the rest of the year. This was February. Dr. R., my psychologist, confessed to me later that they had gradually extended my disability leave. Both doctors were concerned that if they had told me I'd be off work for the rest of the year, I might have pulled myself together and gone back to work. Knowing that could do me permanent harm, they protected me from my own stubborn ways. This was the best plan for my students as well.

With six and a half months off, including summer vacation, I could begin the healing process. My body and mind needed time to rest, reflect and pray. I read my Bible and other good material, but I couldn't hold my focus
for more than minutes at a time. My immediate and extended families were wonderful. Dr. R. coached me on how to look after myself, and that didn't mean shutting myself off at home. Friends came for coffee or took me for a walk. God walked with me too. Often he lifted me over the ruts and rough parts.

One thing that causes depression, I have learned, is this: stress over a long time can cause a chemical imbalance in the brain. That's why I still need to take a maintenance dose of an anti-depressant.

That's Part One of my story.

And why am I telling you this? First, I am following the prompt for May. I am filling my post "with the breathings of my heart." To be continued.


  1. Bravo to you, Sharon for being so open and honest. I grew up with a mother who suffered from depression and it was something we were not allowed to talk about. Her illness was kept hidden making it difficult for me, as a child first of all, to understand it any way. Even as an adult it was a while before I grasped a sense of depression. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you, Vickie for your comment. I hope by my speaking up that I can do my part to make depression or mental illness in general easier for people to talk about in a positive way. That must have been hard for you not to be able to talk about it, learn about, and even ask questions if you wanted. Also, I think that today there are more meds available to help patients. We knew of a lady years back who would be taken to a "mental asylum, and I think she underwent shock treatments as well. I believe in using the least amount of meds that I need, but, when my brain chemistry is out of balance, I can see the difference it makes. My faith in God is a big part of my healing too.

    1. As a child it was very difficult and even as an adult when I dared ask questions, my mom didn't want to talk about it. It took so much courage to ask at that point and still be shut out. I'm not sure she understood her depression herself. She never went for counseling at all. I also met a lady in one of my writing classes who received shock treatments. She was hospitalized for 6 months. She wrote about it in one of her stories. Amazing journey!

  3. I love your openness and honesty. Depression (or mental illness of any kind) is still something that many people in the church still have trouble acknowledging.

  4. That's why I felt compelled to write about this. Today, I believe, is the last day of Mental Health Week. I may continue this topic next month, even if it isn't the exact topic for June.

  5. "Time to rest, reflect and pray"... In our fix-it-quick world, we don't want to accept that time should be diverted from so-called practical activities to what appears to be an unproductive effort. But just as pancreatic chemistry causes diabetes, an imbalance in brain chemistry cannot be ignored.

    "Friends came for coffee or took me for a walk." Thank you for telling us how friends can help. People are often at a loss when someone suffers from a mental concern. Please follow up next month, Sharon. I look forward to Part 2.

  6. Stress over a long-time can cause depression? I did not know this! Thank you for sharing this first part of your journey. And look forward to part 2.

  7. I look forward to part 2 as well

  8. Thanks, all of you, for encouraging me to go ahead with Part 2. This time the doctor called it "stress and exhaustion." We are having a challenging year, but God has been good to us too.

  9. Thank you for sharing, Sharon. "Stress over a long period of time" is exactly what causes my depression too. I am learning to let go of things, situations that I cannot control, and people that I cannot control and to detach myself from them a little. I appreciate you bringing this to light! I look forward to Part II as well.

  10. Thank you Sharon for letting us in on part of the journey. "A full platter of life's circumstances ... this could happen to anyone." You've got that right. And we do not make judgement calls on cancer patients, why should it be different with mental health issues?

  11. Oh, Pam, the art of letting go and letting God. . . That is so important for each of us to learn. As Christians, we tend to be compassionate and to love with all our hearts. The more we care, the more we tend to get involved. Sometimes we forget to turn our own problems and the problems of our loved ones over to you.

    Let's pray. Lord, come to us. Many of us are weary and burdened, and we need the rest you offer. Teach us to live as you would have us live. Lord, I know your yoke is easier than the one I often put around my neck. Help me to get rid of that burdensome yoke and replace it with yours. May I learn today, even though it's a busy day, how to find rest for my soul and care for my mind and body. Amen.

    Thanks for your comments, Pam and Jocelyn, and also the encouragement to carry on with my writing on this subject that strikes a nerve for some of my readers.

  12. Thanks for being so brave Sharon and sharing what you're going through...and helping us all to better understand depression.

  13. I really appreciate what you were saying in your post too, Connie. Blessings.

  14. Thank you Sharon for opening up about depression. I have also dealt with it personally in my own life and understand how it can come and go. I've been to the bottom so to speak, especially when I lost one of my sisters to depression in 2004. I so appreciate how your doctor was so wise and worked with you to take time off without overwhelming you. Support systems are so very important with depression and not everyone has them. The more people who can speak/write about depression the better this world will be for everyone dealing with it. Thank you.

  15. Thank you Sharon for being so honest in sharing your life with us.I see your blog as a warning. My stress level seems to go higher as time goes on and I look after my husband at home. He is willing to go to the carehome so I can take some time off. I will do this more than once a year. I am actually hoping to be able to come to the Inscribe Fall conference. Can't plan for sure yet, but even the thought and making some of the plans is already making the load lighter.
    Thank you and God bless you for sharing.

  16. My heart and my prayers go out to you, Gloria, in the loss of your sister to depression, and my prayers go out to you, Addy, in your role as caregiver for your husband. I believe we can help one another when we talk openly about depression and how it affects us. When Jesus said, "Love your neighbour as you love yourself," I believe it is implied that we should love ourselves--we are part of God's creation--and therefore look after ourselves. It is wonderful, Addy, that your husband understands and accepts your need for respite from your caregiving role.

    Yes, Gloria, supports and openness about depression can help others suffering from sorrow and mental illness to realize God loves them. Talking and writing about our experiences may also help people recognize "the boat" God sends to bring them to a safe harbour. May he bless you both.

  17. Anonymous5:52 am GMT-7

    Thanx so much for starting to share you story on this Sharon. So sad that it happened and so glad that you got the help, support and healing that you need. I can totally relate to your story. God bless you as you continue the healing journey. Thanks for sharing this insightful, heartwarming story. (HUGS and PRAYERS) Shirley W.

  18. Thank you, my dear, for your support too.

  19. Ah, I knew we had a connection as I read your posts. I can so relate! I am find Him faithful to walk with me and heal me and no matter what, believe completely that "…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well". So glad you posted so honestly, Sharon. God bless you my dear.

  20. Blessings to you, Ramona. I just now found a couple of your comments on my blogs. Thanks for letting me know that I made a connection with you. When we are honest, as I am trying to be, it seems that we do make that leap in our writing from writer to reader. I appreciate knowing that!

  21. Needed this today, two years after you posted. Thanks, Sharon!


Thank you for taking the time to join in the conversation. Our writers appreciate receiving your feedback on posts you have found helpful or meaningful in some way.