Updated: Mar 10, 2021
In 2018 I was at a public speaking event, in which I was encouraging people to be happy in their lives and to not allow their disabilities to stop them from achieving what they want. I offered advice from my own life and was very well received, but afterwards I had to leave quickly to find somewhere to cry. I felt like I was lying.
We live in societies with strict norms on what can be shown in public, or even concerning what can be safely shared in a circle of friends. Our societies are pushing expectations ever higher to publicly display fame, wealth, professional achievements, happiness, beauty, healthy bodies, popularity, or rewarding experiences. Whatever does not match these ideals is hidden away, and becomes shameful, a private secret. We compare our own struggles with all those success stories, in a world that divides people into “winners” and “losers”. Researchers point to the mental health problems adolescents suffer due to peer pressure and expectations on social media. Ultimately, the glorification of “success” contributes to stigmatising any vulnerability. How this is expressed can differ, depending on the context, but the effects are always devastating.
Last week I entered a room in Clubhouse with a discussion in Arabic. A woman had just shared that she was struggling with depression, and came under heavy attack from other participants in the room. Some people were saying that for Muslims there is no such thing as depression. For any challenge in life, good Muslims turn to the Quran. If she was struggling, it meant that her faith was weak, that she was not sufficiently diligent in her religious practice. The tone in the room was so hostile, that I did not even dare to enter that conversation and try to defend the woman who was attacked.
For sure, some people find support in their faith and communities when they are struggling with adversity. But what should I say about people who use the name of faith to attack a person who is already exposed and fragile? I find it just as bad as when people consider disability as “divine punishment”, or justify a discriminatory caste system by talking of karma.
People can suffer in many ways, but any suffering gets much worse when it is compounded by social stigma, exclusion, and isolation. Certain kinds of suffering are more accepted socially, while others are taboo. It is acceptable to have an accident and admit to that publicly. Having a long-term illness is already more difficult – nobody wants to have suffering, frustration, and unhappiness in their close social circle. Grief over losing a relative is generally socially accepted. Still, when experiencing grief many people find that others will draw away, or become uncomfortable in their conversations.
Depression can be especially difficult to deal with, since it cannot be explained as easily by a dramatic external event. There are no visible wounds to show, and the person suffering from depression will not have the energy and persistence to deal with rejections. Sufferers end up alone. In Europe, a depressed person will usually not be accused of lack of religious devotion, but society instead sends the sufferer to doctors who will prescribe medication, and consider the problem to be solved. To me, this is just another way of turning your back.
In this time of COVID-19, many people who were used to daily social interaction have been forced to live in isolation. The newspapers are full of statistics on the mental cost of lockdowns, uncertainty, and social distancing. Social isolation is as dangerous for your health as smoking, while social support and contact is a major factor in recovery from illness. But to even start speaking about the problem, did it have to take a worldwide disaster, a visible external event that we could safely blame?
As for so many other aspects of life, depression becomes more complicated for people with disability. People with disability already struggle with social contacts, mobility, or livelihoods. Financial hardship, marginalisation in medical systems, lack of access to exercise and recreation, chronic pain, insecurity, and poor quality sleep can all add up, with stress that wears people down over time. People with disability may also feel additional pressures to be charming and cheerful, to compensate for their disability. They may feel guilty about adding extra burdens on relatives or friends who are supporting them.
Just as for many physical ailments, there is no easy fix for depression. Some people are helped by medication or prayers, others not. But no matter what the situation of each individual is, it is not acceptable to add social isolation and rejection to the suffering that depression already entails. At a time in history when we pride ourselves on conquering outer space, it is high time that we evolve as human societies. We may not have cures for all the pains of human existence, but we can at least take some time to listen, care and share, more than just the glossy superficial pictures of success.