Some people you love because they’ve impacted your life in one big way. Some people you love because they’ve impacted it in many small ways. Robin Williams is definitely the latter. The weird thing about Robin’s death is just how deeply it has impacted folks. It’s like all of a sudden waking up and finding out that the one uncle that you could always mooch money off of has died. The love he’s getting now is well… fully deserved.
At the same time, his death has started a deeper conversation about two important topics: depression and suicide. The world is a shocked to find out that a man who made millions laugh and appeared so upbeat about life didn’t like it enough to keep on living it. They’re also back to asking the same old question millions of people who lack a basic understanding of depression ask at the end of each suicide: “Was it depression?” and “How can we prevent depressed people from committing suicide.”
Before we can answer any of those two questions, let me clear something up: Not all depressed people commit suicide and not all suicides are a consequence of depression. However, people with depression are at greater risk of suicide and having suicidal tendencies is one among many factors that is used to diagnose depression. (One among many here means on its own, it isn’t a surefire sign of depression).
So what is depression itself then?
Let me first tell you what it isn’t: it’s not being sad all the time. I think that’s the single most misunderstood aspect of depression. Not all sad people are depressed and not all depressed people are sad all the time. Even people who are sad for a reasonably long time don’t always fit the symptoms of having depression. That’s not to say being sad all the time isn’t bad. It’s just that it’s not always depression.
I think a better approach to answering the question would be to ask: is depression one thing? And the answer is no. There are multiple states that can be diagnosed as depression. There is dysthymia - which I suffer from -, there’s bipolar disorder, which is associated with frequent mood swings, there’s major depression, which is… The point is, not all people diagnosed with depression have a clear-cut chart where certain things are tick-marked that you can look at and say: “Okay, they have depression - they’re screwed.”
There are many different types, some very different from others, while others are similar. One isn’t worse or better than the other - they’re all bad. The only person who should diagnose depression and its forms is a health professional in the field. I could list things here, but I really don’t want to fan the self-diagnosis epidemic. If you feel like you are depressed, talk to a health professional.
Now: Let’s get slightly more in-depth and break some myths.
1. Depression is hereditary (there are genetic factors involved).
We’re not sure. It might be. We just aren’t sure.
2. Depression is not genetic.
Same as the last answer.
3. Trauma and abuse - especially at a young age - can cause depression.
The correct way to say this is: people with trauma and abuse in their past - especially, but not necessarily, at a young age - are at greater risk of depression.
4. Depression is mental.
Not quite. People with depression might also suffer from physical problems.
Chronic pain is something that can be brought about by depression. (vice versa, existing chronic pain can cause the sufferer to become depressed). Chronic fatigue is also something that can be brought on by depression. Sexual dysfunction is an oft-ignored, but troubling symptom of depression in some people. (While others are perfectly healthy; don’t take this as “Oh, she’s depressed so she won’t have sex all the time.” Maybe you just don’t know how to use yours…) The point is, not all symptoms of depression are mental. Many physical effects of depression can be equally as debilitating.
5. Depressed people have something wrong with their brains.
I hate when people think that about me. People with depression don’t need pity. Nor do we need people to think of us as defective machines. We don’t think of people with cancer, or diabetes or epilepsy or a love of humvees as such. Why depression? Don’t make statements about something that you are not qualified to make a statement about. It only makes things worse for us. The stigma attached to depression by such beliefs actually causes more depression.
Instead of understanding and supporting, people frequently marginalize and shun depressed individuals. Like any other illness - yes, ILLNESS -, we need medical help - not people avoiding us and leaving us to our own suffering.
6. Can’t depressed folks just stop being sad? I mean, I get over my issues all the time.
That’s like asking someone with hepatitis to get over their hepatitis. How about I punch you in the face and give you three seconds to get over it, how about that!? No, they have to get diagnosed, be treated and then slowly recover. Depression is the same way.
7. My loved one told me they might have depression, what should I do?
The first thing you should do is not make any judgments or give advice. You are not a health professional unless you are a health professional. You need to get them to seek medical help as soon as possible to figure out whether it really is depression and if it is, what can be done about it. This is especially critical if you are an adult in custody of a minor. Please take depression seriously.
Depression gets harder to treat the older individuals get. If a loved one tells you they are depressed, treat it as if they’d told you they have any other serious long-term illness. Seek medical help urgently!
8. Should I be worried?
As worried as you would be if they had any other serious long-term illness. Treat it as seriously as the medical health professional tells you and don’t make any judgments. We need love, care and support, not pity, ostracization and fear from those close to us. We don’t bite (well, some of us do, but I promise, it will only feel good!)
And for the love of god, don’t go around telling people who are depressed that you get sad all the time, too. When depressed people sit together, we don’t talk about our depression, we talk about finding people like you and kicking your ass.
9. Can I be in a relationship with someone who has depression?
Yes. Of course you can! Although it comes with its own unique challenges, people suffering from depression are just as likely to be wholesome, loving and caring as anyone else. You just have to speak to your partner openly about their depression and understand what you and they can do to make the relationship work - like any other relationship!
Depression is a serious illness, but individuals with depression have the potential to be as amazing - and as horrible - as anyone else. Don’t create a different category for us. Don’t rob us of our humanity… or lack there of!
10. Can depression be fully treated?
It depends. This is a question a medical health professional is best suited to answer, not me. What I can tell you is that medication and therapy (often together) have been shown to have a positive effect on mitigating symptoms of depression and helping people live healthy, happy lives.
Now that we’ve gotten this out of the way… The key question: “How can we prevent depressed people from committing suicide.”
First let me answer this question to anyone who like me is depressed and has battled suicidal tendencies. I’m going to give you a very subjective answer and it might not work for everyone, but it has for me.
Find something to hold onto. In my case, when I was perhaps the closest to committing suicide, I avoided it by convincing myself that enough people loved me that if I killed myself, I’d be ruining lives. Then, I sought help and did everything I could in my power to not give up - all the while reminding myself that if nothing else, my being here is the cause of joy and happiness for others because I’m AWESOME.
I can’t promise that it will get better, but I can promise that after every failure, there’s at least one more way to fail left that you haven’t tried, yet!
Find a friend or a loved one to talk to to be reminded that you need to choose life at that moment. If there’s absolutely no one that you can talk to about it, then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. Or, google to see if there is a suicide prevention hotline in your own area.
As for everyone else, again, if people share their suicidal thoughts or state of depression with you, talk to them and see if they’ll agree to seeking medical help. Don’t suddenly panic and call 911. The best way to stop suicide is by talking to people and getting them out of that moment. That’s what suicide hotlines do. They talk to people to get them out of their current state and get them to seek medical help.
Now go forth and be depressed or if you’re not, to supporting people with depression without being a jackass about it. As for Robin Williams, I think he’s on the other side, trying his darndest best to make people laugh - or having tons of kinky sex with his favorite dead celebrity!
"Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, humor!" - Robin Williams (Patch Adams)