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Fighting Mental Illness Stigma, One Tweet at a Time

living with depression

Amy Marlow says with confidence that her personality can easily light up a room. She’s been happily married for almost seven years and loves dancing, traveling, and weightlifting. She also happens to live with depression, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and is a survivor of suicide loss.

All of Amy’s diagnosable conditions fall under the umbrella term mental illness, and one of the most common misconceptions about mental illness is that it isn’t common. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four adult Americans are living with a mental illness.

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That can be a hard number to digest, particularly because mental illness doesn’t have any easily observable symptoms. That makes it very difficult to offer support to others, or even recognize you’re living with it yourself.

But Amy openly chronicles her experiences with mental illness and writes about mental health on her blog, Blue Light Blue and on her social media accounts. We spoke with her to learn more about her personal experience with depression, and what opening up to her loved ones (and the world) has done for her and for others.

Healthline: When were you first diagnosed with a mental illness?

Amy: I wasn’t diagnosed with a mental illness until I was 21, but I believe prior to that I was experiencing depression and anxiety, and I definitely was experiencing PTSD following my father’s death.

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It was grief, but it was also different from the grief you feel when your parent dies of cancer. I had a very serious trauma that I witnessed; I was the one who discovered my father had taken his own life. A lot of those feelings went inside and I was very numb to it. It’s such an awful, complicated thing, especially for children to find and see suicide in your home.

There was always a lot of anxiety that something bad could happen at any moment. My mom could die. My sister could die. Any second the other shoe was going to drop. I was getting professional help ever since the day my dad died.

understanding and living with depression

Healthline: How did you feel after getting a label for what you’ve been trying to cope with for so long?

Amy: I felt like I was handed a death sentence. And I know that sounds dramatic, but to me, my dad had lived with depression and it killed him. He killed himself because of depression. It was like something seemed weird and then one day he was gone. So to me, I felt like the last thing I ever wanted was to have that same problem.

I didn’t know then that many people have depression and they can cope and live with it in a good way. So, it was not a helpful label for me. And at that time I didn’t really believe that depression was an illness. Even though I was taking medication, I kept feeling like I should be able to get over this myself.

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Throughout this time, I did not tell anybody about this stuff. I didn’t even tell the people I was dating. I kept it very private that I had depression.

understanding and living with depression

Healthline: But after holding in this information for so long, what was the turning point to be open about it?

Amy: I was trying to go off my antidepressants under the guidance of a doctor in 2014 because I wanted to get pregnant and I was told to go off all of my medications in order to ever be pregnant. So when I did that I totally destabilized and within three weeks of going off my medication, I was in the hospital because I was overcome with anxiety and panic disorder. I’ve never had an episode like that. I had to quit my job. It was like I didn’t have the option to hide this anymore. My friends knew now. The protective shell had just cracked apart.

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That’s the moment when I realized I was doing exactly what my dad did. I was struggling with depression, hiding it from people, and I was falling apart. That’s when I said I wasn’t going to do this anymore.

From then on, I was going to be open. I’m not going to lie one more time and say, “I’m just tired” when someone asks if I’m OK. I won’t say, “I don’t want to talk about it” when someone asks about my dad. I think I was ready to start being open.

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Healthline: So once you started being honest with yourself and to others about your depression, did you notice a shift in your behavior?

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Amy: For the first year of being open, it was very painful. I was very embarrassed and I was aware of how much shame I felt.

But I started to go online and read about mental illness. I found some websites and people on social media who were saying things like, “You don’t have to be ashamed of depression,” and “You don’t have to hide your mental illness.”

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I felt like they were writing that to me! I realized I’m not the only one! And when people have mental illness, that is probably the refrain that replays all the time in your mind, that you’re the only one like this.

understanding and living with depression

So I became aware that there is a ‘mental health stigma’. I only just learned that word a year and a half ago. But once I started to become aware, I became empowered. It was a like a butterfly coming out of the cocoon. I had to learn, I had to feel safe and strong and then I could start, in little steps, sharing with other people.

Healthline: Does writing for your blog and keeping yourself open and honest on social media keep you positive and honest with yourself?

Yes! I started writing for myself, because I’ve been holding in all of these stories, these moments, these memories, and they had to come out of me. I had to process them. In doing that, I have found that my writing has helped other people and that’s incredible to me. I always felt like I had this sad story that I had to hide from other people. And the fact that I share it openly and I hear from others online is amazing.

I was recently published in the Washington Post, the same paper where my dad’s obituary was published. But in the obituary, his cause of death was changed to cardiopulmonary arrest and made no mention of suicide because they didn’t want the word ‘suicide’ in his obituary.

There was so much shame associated with suicide and depression and for those who are left, you are left with this sense of shame and secrecy where you shouldn’t really talk about what actually happened.

So for me to be able to write lovingly about my dad and about my experience with mental illness in the very same paper where his cause of death was changed, it was like an opportunity to come full circle.

In the first day alone, I got 500 emails through my blog and it continued all week and it was people pouring their stories out. There’s an amazing community of people online who are creating a safe space for others to open up, because mental illness is still something that’s very uncomfortable to talk about with other people. So now I share my story as openly as I can, because it saves people’s lives. I believe that it does.

Join Healthline’s Help For Depression Facebook Group »

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