The Sadness Stigma

Stigmas shape culture and belief. Stigma, is a mark of disgrace or shame associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. In the case of “Mental Health” the stigma is clear. Most people seem to believe some who is “mentally ill” has a broken brain, and we “gotta get ’em fixed.” That’s bullshit. The truth, brains all work very differently. That’s a fact. My brain and yours work very differently. It’s time to de-stigmatize mental health.

The big question I have is, what if the stigma of “mentally ill” were creating more harm than actual mental health issues? The resistance we have to being mentally unstable, which is a normal part of life, I believe, may be causing more harm than actual mental illness. One of the very normal behaviors that we have stigmatized, is sadness. In our culture it’s not ok to be sad anymore. No, now you are labeled as “depressed.” The pressure to wear a smile all the time is exhausting! Who’s with me?

The stigma of being “depressed” is so pervasive, that those of us who struggle with it often adopt the belief that we are broken.  And due to the stigma, we have all accepted it as true. What if “being depressed” were, in fact a social construct? What if depression wasn’t even a pathology to begin with? This is a presumptuous question. And one that I hope you can grasp the importance of. In no way am I suggesting that depression isn’t real. It is very real. Being depressed is a serious thing, it can lead to severe loneliness, hopelessness, thoughts or worthlessness, and suicide. We know through fMRI brain scans that the brain chemistry of someone who is diagnosed as depressed is different than someone who is not. I am not minimizing how serious and debilitating depression is. It is more than just feeling sad. Much more than that. I am simply asking the question if we de-stigmatized, or normalized, being sad instead of labeling it as mental illness or brokenness, what effect would that have on people? My theory, it would change the very landscape of our society. In other words, sadness and depression are natural human responses to individual experiences. This is not a “bad” thing. The brain’s natural response to loss and trauma is to change how it works. That’s mother nature’s way of helping us, she is not hurting us!

But we have demonized this sadness and the solution has been prescribed for us. The answer is pills, pills, pills, and more pills. Guess what folks? Being sad isn’t bad. It’s freaking normal for crying out loud!!! Sadness is a natural and healthy human emotion. But for some reason we have decided that if we feel sad we need to numb the pain associated with it. This, my friends, in my humble opinion, is one of the great downfalls of our society. We are so pain averse and resistant that we will do anything we can to run from our discomfort. Often times at the expense of others.

As such, now sad people are deemed broken and “need to be fixed.” We have no place for sadness anymore. And as a result, anyone who is sad is lonely beyond belief. Believing, that they are the saddest person alive. When, as a culture, we have decided to numb out all of our sadness with pills, drugs, alcohol, video games, and avoidance, no one has the space to show how they feel anymore. We all hide our feelings constantly. Putting on a brave face, showing the world nothing of our true self. For fear of being found out, for fear of being labeled as “sick.” And what ends up happening, “what we resist, persists.” We end up being even more lonely and sad, simply because of our aversion to feeling pain.

Ask yourself this question: When was the last time you publicly cried? When was the last time you told someone that you were having a hard day? When was the last time you just said, “I’m sad.” We don’t do it. We all put on a mask everyday. We need to lean in to the discomfort just a little more.

When we ignore, numb, and deny ourselves the pain we ALL live with, we create isolation and loneliness. What’s worse we are creating a generation of young people hyper-occupied with how bad they feel, willing to do anything to stop the pain. All the while creating more pain. Simply because they believe the pain is “bad” in the first place.  This is the society we live in, and as a result we are creating numbed out, risk and pain avoidant, scared children.  If I’m afraid of being sad how will I ever address how I feel?

What if we normalized pain and sadness and accepted it as part of life? In reality pain is the things that binds us. Suffering is the only commonly experienced thing in life. That’s what being human is, suffering. Our suffering binds us together.

Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or non-believing, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference.

-His Holiness the Dalai Lama

As we ignore what binds us, we disconnect from each other. When we numb our suffering and run from the lessons it can teach us, we lose our innate ability to connect. As a result we are more disconnected and fractured now than ever. However, there is hope. Moving towards compassion and love we can find connection. Owning our suffering, rather than pretending “everything is ok,” takes courage and builds compassion and connection. We all just want to be loved, it is easy to love what we understand. And we can all understand suffering. Own it, be sad, live in the sadness for a minute and watch what happens. If each of us just attempt to break the stigma of sadness, we will find that with that simple act comes an abundance of love and happiness.

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