Depression and Stigma


Depression awareness is fronted here by John Kirwan. The man is a legend, not just for his rugby prowess but also because of his very public campaign to raise awareness for depression.  But could glorifying high-achievers with mental health difficulties may be more insensitive than inspiring.

Mark Brown thinks this may be the case:

If you’re a person who experiences mental health difficulties, as I do, you’ll be familiar with an oft-quoted list of inspirational fellow travellers, such as Winston Churchill and his famous “black dog” or national treasure Stephen Fry and his bipolar disorder.

The media retains a fondness for presenting exceptional disabled people as inspirational.

“Look,” they say. “Here is a person who has achieved so much. Do not lose heart, you too can overcome your disability if you follow their example.”

This may at first seem a benign point to make but, I wonder, does it do more harm than good?

The dominant positive media stories offer up high-achieving disabled people as examples of the human spirit triumphing over adversity. Other positive tales are of people rising to stratospheric heights “despite” a physical or mental health difficulty. 

In some respects people also do this to me…they heap praise on my openness with my battles with depression and the fact that I help people…but is it wise?

Where the inspirational figure is selected for us, and the gap between their life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment – especially if their story is told in terms of personal qualities like bravery or persistence.

Knowing a famous person has the same impairment as you can be reassuring, but only in the vague way that hearing of a successful distant relative is reassuring.

In some respects this can work well however there runs a risk of further stigmatising sufferers…because depression can be so debilitating, the inability to rise above it like John Kirwan has can actually make one feel useless and pathetic.

Neuroskeptic accepts the points raised above “‘He’s got it, and so do you, so you can be like him’ is perilously close to ‘He’s got it, and so do you, so you should be like him – what’s your excuse?’” – but argues that celebrity sufferers contradict different stigmas in different ways:

I think some of these celebrity examples are useful, not as generic inspirations for ‘the mentally ill’ but as concrete answers to particular attitudes. Against the simplistic view that there’s a single ‘stigma of mental illness’, I think there are many different stigmas and they have to be tackled separately.

In the case of depression, the core stigma is that depression is a weakness, a moral failing. That depressed people are soft, weak, pitiable. This attitude is specific to depression – not even bipolar disorder is seen in the same way, let alone the other diagnoses. They have their own stigmas. Depression’s is weakness.

Now this is why Churchill is a good counterexample. Not just because he’s famous or ‘great’, but because he was famously tough. He faced down Hitler. He was blood, sweat and tears. In the most famous photos of him (and they are famous, out of all his photos, because they correspond to the mental image) he is almost unsmiling – but never despairing. Just resolute.

That he experienced depression undermines the myths surrounding that condition, in a way that an entertainer or other generic celebrity wouldn’t.

For me there is  disconnect with John Kirwan, mainly because of the messaging I think, though I can’t put my finger on it. The messages that most resonate with me are those of Mike King…mainly because I think his experience of depression is very similar to mine. I have filled in for Mike a few times on his show because the first time I met him, when I was a guest on his show, I think in that 4 hours we got to connect as mates, who both suffer the same thing in similar ways.

So I guess all I am saying to people out…is find a role model that resonates with you in how they battle and stay on top of depression. The black dog is certainly here to stay in my life, I just have to find ways to manage it.

The hard part often, though, is trying to get intransigent people and organisations to understand that medication and or traditional treatments for depression are not cures…certainly they weren’t for me, in fact in many respects they made my life much, much worse for which there will eventually be an accounting for.

Until that happens, until I can work out just exactly how I can defeat this thing that stalks me, I will continue to remain trapped in the loneliness of depression.

One day I will put down all my battles with depression into a book, explain how the drugs didn’t work, explain the constant battles with insurers and tell how depression has destroyed everything including relationships with friends and those I care for, until there was literally only me left standing, broken by it all, alone except for the thing that did this to me.

Help is Here


0800 543 354 or (09) 522 2999


Suicide Prevention Helpline

0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOK0)



0800 376 633



0800 726 666


Depression Helpline

Available 8am to midnight.

0800 111 757



Community Action on Suicide Prevention Education and Research

0508 CASPER 0508 227737




0508 425 2666


Alcohol and Drug Hotline

General: 0800 787 797

Maori Line: 0800 787 789

Pasifika Line: 0800 787 799


Alcoholics Anonymous

0800 229 6757


Narcotics Anonymous

0800 NA TODAY (0800 628 632)


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.