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Stigma & dignity

Even at 5 years old I could feel depression hacking away at me on the inside. On the outside it showed. I was often sad, rarely smiled or talked. My family dealt with it the best they could – my uncle gave me my first parrot. It was nice to have a companion–he made me smile even when I didn’t have the strength to muster one. But it wasn’t enough.

As I got older depression continued carving a hole at my centre, and I told two relatives about the traumas which I had endured. I expected a hug or ‘it will be alright’ but none of that came. My relatives ignored it. I couldn’t understand but with time, I started to comprehend the politics around mental health on the island I called home.

Anyone with mental health problems faced stigma, and was referred to as ‘mad’ and affected by evil spirits. Similarly, the only mental health institution was called the ‘madhouse.’ No one talked about medical treatment.

It was no surprise that my said uncle received no medical treatment after he attempted suicide. I was around 9 when the news came to our doorstep – my uncle drank a full bottle of a potent chemical, and was lying at the roadside. My family rushed to his aid with cups of warm milk and prayers. We never talked about it.

At 16 after a nervous breakdown, I received my first diagnosis of depression. I was bedridden for two weeks, unable to cope, eat and my reaction to things far slower than it had ever been. I stopped seeing my doctor when he suggested psychotherapy. I couldn’t have society finding out. My family might have been shamed. I felt like I was wearing depression on my sleeves with an alarming scarlet S. S for shame. But S was also for stigma and suppression.

When I confided in someone I dated, he laughed at me and joked about how glassy my eyes looked from being ‘drugged up. He spoke about ‘normal people’ my age, and ‘friends’ whispered about my ‘imagined’ trauma. The scarlet S on my sleeves grew.

I thought that something was terribly wrong with me.

In many ways stigma is the opposite of dignity. Stigma caused me to hide, and hiding meant that I could not get the treatment I needed. That is what stigma does.

Far away from home, I finally sought help when depression made it impossible for me to get out of bed or become a stranger to hospitals where I recovered from serious but failed suicide attempts. I discovered that even in developed countries, people were filled with misconceptions about mental illness. I met nurses who treated me with contempt so I quickly reverted to my old ways.

I was surprised to find that when I joined Depression Alliance, there was a community of people walking the same road as me, who were kind, and concerned for my wellbeing. The support I received was invaluable in getting me the help I needed. The next time I was in hospital I met nurses and doctors who were so kind to me, it made me cry.

That experience gave me the resolve to embark on raising awareness of mental health problems. Until the world is free of stigma I will not stop working. Until every person with a mental health problem knows they are not alone, I will stay vocal. People with mental health problems are people too after all, deserving of dignity and love.

Alisha Nurse
I blog at and

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