Last week, depression and mental illness made big news with the passing of actor and comedian Robin Williams. No matter what the doctors on the TV say about this being the moment we will finally have an open discussion on mental illness, I always hear the same comments. How could they be so selfish? How could they not see how much they were loved? I’m not about to sit here and say I understand. All I have is the depression of my teen years. Still, that’s enough for me to see how misguided and nearly insulting those questions are.
Suicide was a reality of my teen years. About once a year, a student in my high school attempted or succeeded in killing themself. I remember my mom commenting on how selfish they were. They were running away, escaping life and giving no thought to the people they were leaving behind.
Love and selfishness have nothing to do with it, although it can certainly feel that way. If you’ve ever spoken to someone in the height of their depression, you might feel like they’re not listening or rejecting your feelings. I doubt that’s the case most of the time, if at all.
I remember sitting in my bedroom during my middle school years, crying myself to yet again and looking around at all that surrounded me. There were posters from shows I liked, a large bookcase half full of books and a desk with a hand-me-down computer. I was a lucky kid with more than many others my age. I didn’t like my stuff, though. All I saw was money my parents wasted on me. I was a worthless person who had achieved nothing. All the money spent of these items, on the food that fed me a the clothes that covered me was wasted on my life. I loved my family and obsessed about all the things they could do if I stopped existing.
I thought about what would happen to them if I took my own life. Certainly they’d be sad, but people died all the time. I knew it would be hard, but I figured my family would get over it eventually. They’d move on, now free of the burden I was on their life.
Now, as I have overcome those dark days, I understand that my family likely would have never gotten over my death. Really, I don’t know if that’s something a person can ever get over. It’s why questions about why a person takes their life are asked. It’s in our nature to desire a reason. We want to know why and we haunt ourselves wondering if there was anything we could have done to change the outcome. Was there something we could have done to show them just how much they were loved? Is there something that would have made them stay?
Given my own experiences with depression, I imagine showing a person more love and doing more for them would have only made them feel like more of a burden.
What can you do then? Unfortunately, I don’t have much of an answer. I imagine it’s sort of like having the flu. You can’t force someone to get over the flu. All you can do is be there for them. The flu is something we understand, though. We know the things we can do to make life easier for someone with the flu. We understand it has an ending, where the person is healthy and moves forward. Depression and many other mental illnesses are not so cut and dry.
A short while ago, I read a Buzzfeed article on things you should never say to someone suffering from depression. This article was particularly interesting because it not only explained why a comment was less than helpful, but it provided an alternative comment.
From what I have gathered, it seems the only real way to help someone is to listen to them, acknowledge their struggles and let them know they are not alone. They can’t just stop or get over their feelings, especially when those feelings are driven by chemical imbalances outside of their control. Even that may not be enough. That’s why it important to pay close attention to a person with clinical depression. There is a point where a person needs more help than can be given outside of the proper facilities.
I hope a day will come where we really will have an open discussion on depression and mental illness. I hope that understanding will reduce fear and increase awareness. More than anything else, I hope a day will come where we’ll have a better scientific understanding of mental illness. I look forward to a day where we have medications and/or treatments that treat the illness only, without also affecting other aspects of a person’s personality. It’s common for people taking medication for mental illness to go off their medication because of various side effects.
I wonder, if Robin Williams could have taken a medication that treated the lowest of his depression without touching the highest of his happiness, would he still be here? How many others would still be here? Do you think it’s possible for such a medication to be created? Will we ever see a future where people can have open an honest conversations about mental illness without the fear of stigma?