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Social media & breaking down health stigma

This week I saw a really powerful video called “I had a black dog, his name was depression” which was developed by the WHO to talk about depression.  Despite this video being a bit “long” at just over 4 minutes I watched it through to the very end.  As someone who has had my own issues with the black dog over the years the video really resonated with me.

I have certainly had to make compromises in my life as a result of depression.  Whilst people at work have never really seen the impact of my depression, my friends have.  This is because when you suffer from depression you work really hard to hide it and to carry on and invariable you have to prioritise your energy.  For me work has always won that prioritisation but that means that at the end of the day I had no energy left to meet with friends.  In hindsight this may have exacerbated things as I had no one to talk to and just fought my battle on my own.

Today however things are different.  Firstly I found out that my depression was actually a symptom not a stand-alone disease (it was in fact a result of my Hashimoto’s, for which I am now getting treatment).    Secondly I decided that as someone who works in the healthcare industry I have a duty to stand up and be a voice for patients, to help break down the social stigma and the silence that goes with this, and many other diseases.  I stopped making excuses to my friends (I’m busy, I have a cold, etc.) but become open and if I could not go out because of depression I told them. I was amazed at just how many of my friends then also came out and told me they too had had their own battles with depression.  We started talking and it often really helped.

The other big change though that I have seen since my first bout of depression in my early twenties is the impact of social media.  When I once posted on Facebook about it I had friends PM me to tell me how brave I was but also how it helped them to hear that they were not the only one having these battles.  I did not think I was brave – I think I was just being passionate about the my obligations as a patient who works in the healthcare industry.

Social media also provides people with a forum where they can talk to others, anomalously if they want, and get support when they need it.  I myself have written in the past about my involvement in talking a Facebook friend down from suicide via a Facebook group.  The lady in particular had set up a closed group called “Goodbye” where she shared that she had had enough and had decided to end it.  Members of the group included people from the US, Europe and Australia, so we really were able to provide her with 24 hour support.  We were there for her and provided her with the friends and support she did not have offline, without which I am sure she would no longer be here today.  Social media really did save a life.

The other benefit that I believe social media is bringing is to help break down the stigma and enabling people to talk openly, and show their support.  By moving depression out of the dark and into the public domain it can help patients, and give them the confidence to talk to people and seek help.  Knowing you are not alone can in itself be incredibly impactful.

Finally another thing to remember about depression is that it is not just a developed world problem.  Not surprisingly depression is a huge issue in war torn countries or where people do not have a balanced diet (as is the case in areas of extreme poverty). In these countries however the stigma is still very big around depression and talking about health problems, and here having access to an online resource where you can be anonymous can really have a huge impact.  Slowly as more people in these countries get access to the internet we may hopefully start to see technology starting to help improve the lives of patients in these countries.

We still have a long way to go to break down the stigma surrounding  depression and mental health but social media is helping.  The positive results should be seen not only in terms of patients quality of life but also economically as people get the support they need to be able to function and be productive at work.  I personally never took a sick day because of my depression but I know many people who have.  Reducing those sick days would be another great ROI for social media!

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