The stigmatization of people with depression infiltrates schools and workplaces. It splits families apart. And it’s not only the acutely depressed who have to fear rejection; the highfunctioning hide their mental health histories too. One of them is 52-year-old Ruth Joseph.
Ruth has a demanding corporate job. She is required to drive and deliver on many projects – and keep a cool head while she does it. Her boss and her coworkers know her as an employee they can rely on, and at the same time as someone whose snappy wit makes them laugh. It’s the professional Ruth they work and have fun with. A certain side of herremains invisible to them.
The private Ruth is a volunteer counsellor for a text-message helpline for people in crisis. Ruth tries to help people who are afraid to talk with the people in their lives. And she understands. Since her mid-30s, she’s slipped into and out of depression, and she knows a great deal about keeping your vulnerability hidden.
A privileged wife and mother
Ruth’s family has a strong genetic predisposition to mental illness. Her grandmother, for instance, was committed to a mental hospital for a long period in the ’70s, when Ruth was a little girl. Her grandmother’s illness was shrouded in silence.
Depression entered Ruth’s own life back when she was a stay-at-home mother with two small boys. She was living what she describes today as “a dream life” – and yet she felt ashamed. She felt ashamed that she wasn’t happy. Outwardly, she was a privileged wife and mother who enjoyed her life. Only her husband and twin sister knew she was in a bad way – and only her sister knew the full story. Ruth did have friends, but no confidantes. Often, she was on the point of opening up and then held herself back. In 2000, Ruth was diagnosed with depression.
No one at her workplace knows that story, and no one will. It’s a friendly work environment, but experience has taught her what can happen to employees with depression. Ruth sums up their fate in a few words: “They didn’t fare well.” Ruth loves her job and has a lot at stake. “I would never dare to share my history for fear of appearing weak,” she says. “The less emotion in the workplace, the better.”
In recent years, Ruth has responded well to treatment, and she finds herself in stable remission. Yet depression is not absent from her life. Her younger son has had serious psychological problems since he was 12. Ruth’s son is stuck in a place in his life where she was once stuck too. He has much to be happy about – but he doesn’t feel that way. And like many of the people who text Ruth on the crisis hotline, he blames himself for not being able to pull himself together. True happiness and fake happiness can look like each other, but they lie worlds apart. Ruth has known both. She takes pleasure in her life now, and she talks about what a profound difference that is. And she fervently hopes that one day, her son can join her in finding genuine joy.