In 2001, right after I marched onstage to receive my college diploma from a top university in the Philippines, still wearing a toga and two heavy gold medals around my neck, I ducked into the ladies room and spent an hour in there crying. It didn’t matter that I had just graduated at the top of my class, looked nice in my black Zara pencil-cut dress and forever long and shiny hair, and that my parents were in the audience to celebrate the proudest moment of my life so far.
I was deeply sad when I was supposed to be happy, which was a good description for how I had been feeling for as long as I could remember. And so a few months later, in a country where people are more likely to admit to having had liposuction than they would admit to (or even consider) having their mental health checked, I walked into a psychiatrist’s office for the very first time.
As I sat in the doctor’s waiting room without an appointment, examining the pale yellow walls and bad agricultural-themed art, I gave myself license to sink into the persona of someone “crazy” enough to see a shrink, and began sobbing while filling out forms. The receptionist brought me into the doctor’s room, and there she was: my very first psychiatrist.
For the next hour, this big, dark-skinned woman with curly matte black hair encouraged me to talk about how I was feeling, and at the end of our session matter-of-factly diagnosed me with Major Depressive Disorder. It was, I later learned, just another term for depression. But the words “major” and “disorder” made it sound not just terrifying, but downright shameful and embarrassing. I knew then that I was to tell no one but my closest friends about my condition, and though I sought help and worked on myself, I kept it a secret for the next 16 years.
It’s 2017 now, and I’d like to believe that times have changed. In many parts of the world, the shame and disgrace attached to matters previously regarded as socially unacceptable are fading, such as is the case with homosexuality. With former Olympian and paragon of masculinity Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlin, and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt coming out as a trans kid, being gay is such a non-event, it’s almost passé.
But as we live in interesting times when people routinely share and over-share details on their relationship status, wear innerwear as outerwear, friend our prying mothers on Facebook, and get married to people of the same sex, this wave of progressiveness has not traveled far enough to change the way we think about something so fundamental as mental health. There is still a terrible stigma attached to clinical depression, particularly in the developing world. I believe this absolutely has to change, and so I’m coming out. I am a person who has suffered from clinical depression.
Many people will see this as a dangerous confession — including myself not long ago. The stigma attached to depression can result in people being insulted, rejected, gossiped about, excluded from social activities and not being treated with dignity, kindness and respect: responses that very similar to what members of the LGBT community faced years ago when coming out.
I didn’t dare tell anybody about my inner battles, because I wondered, “What if my clients found out what’s wrong with me? Will they still have trust in my professionalism, or will they assume that I won’t be able to deliver? What if men found out that I have this problem? Will they still find me attractive, or will they decide that I’m an unsuitable partner, unsexy and no fun? What would my friends think of me? Would they worry that it’s contagious, that I’m a downer and that it’s best to avoid me?”
Indeed, when asked to describe someone with depression, most of us envision a glassy-eyed, miserable person who gets nothing done, can’t get out of bed, and reeks of alcohol. It is an incredibly inaccurate and damaging image, and could not be further from the truth. Even in the worst of times, I did very well in school and at work, was always professional and pulled together, never missed a deadline nor had any public meltdowns, was in great shape, and managed to crack the funniest jokes. I am, from the outside, the last person you would imagine to have been suffering from clinical depression - which is precisely the reason I have decided to make it known that, actually, I have suffered from it.
Depression affects 350 million people worldwide, and at its worst, can lead to suicide. When Robin Williams’s wife explained that he “died of depression,” I understood perfectly what she meant. It is a serious illness, and depressed people are not simply having a bad day, and “Cheer up and snap out of it!” is hardly the appropriate response. While I had the courage to seek help and through the years learn how to manage my illness, countless others suffer silently, and revealing one’s mental health battles remains a painful and deeply alienating process for many around the world. But it need not be.
The next time a loved one admits that they are depressed, know how much courage it took for them to come out. Be kind. Be patient. Don’t look at them like they’re insane. And above all, view their admission not as a sign of weakness, but of strength. Depression itself is difficult enough without the repugnance or condescension it invites in others, and there is no reason that so many of us should have to endure it in silence and in shame.
Depression: The Facts Source: American Psychological Association
- Everyone experiences sadness at times. But depression is something more. Depression is extreme sadness or despair that lasts more than days. For some people, it interferes with the activities of daily life and can even cause physical pain..
- Depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, social and environmental factors. People who have a family history of depression, and people with serious chronic diseases such as heart disease or cancer, are at an increased risk of depression. Major life changes, trauma and stress can also bring about an episode of depression, although some episodes of depression begin without any obvious external cause.
- Depression isn't a sign of weakness. It's not something you can just "snap out of." It's an illness that requires professional treatment. Yet with the right care, people can feel better.
About the Jenny Santi
Jenny is a philanthropy advisor to some of the world’s most generous philanthropists and celebrity activists, with clients including signatories of the Giving Pledge, an Academy Award-winning actress, and leading financial institutions in Europe and Asia. For five years beginning at only 28 she served as Head of UBS’s award-winning Philanthropy Services department based in Southeast Asia. She holds an MBA from INSEAD, went to the Wharton School as an exchange student, and graduated summa cum laude from the Ateneo de Manila University. An animal lover, student pilot and accomplished artist, Jenny has lived in Manila, London, France, Singapore, and New York City. She is the author of the acclaimed book “The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories & Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving” (Tarcher Penguin Random House, 2015), and is passionate about helping people discover how to give their time, talents and treasures in ways that not only change the world, but also bring happiness and fulfillment to their own lives.