In light of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain:
Most people would rather discuss their heroin addiction than their depression. No one wants to say, “I have a mental illness.” Well, I have had skin cancer and cluster headaches, asthma, restless leg syndrome… and mental illness.
I’ve had depression all my life. I now realize both my parents probably also had depression. I was raised to believe that getting help for such things was weak and shameful; I only got treatment of therapy and antidepressants when I was 40.
I was fortunate. I had insurance that covered a therapist and medication. I had a good doctor and a good therapist, and a car so I could get to appointments (scheduled after working hours). Medication worked right away for me.
Most people are not as fortunate. They spend months trying to find the right drug(s) to work for them. Not every therapist is a good one, or a good fit. Getting to appointments takes reliable transportation; if you have a family and no childcare, that’s going to complicate the situation. If you don’t have insurance to pay for meds and the doctor, your choices are limited. If you don’t have a support system, or your family is actively negative about seeking treatment, you’ve got that to overcome. You’re afraid to admit you might harm yourself because you don’t know if that will land you in 72-hour observance in the county mental health facility. And many people are reluctant to take anti-depressants for a variety of reasons, which limits them even further.
Though the exact causes of depression (formerly known as melancholy) are unknown, there are numerous possible contributing factors including genetic predisposition, chemical imbalance in the brain, stressful life events, medical problems, a history of abuse or other societal dysfunction, and certain medications/drugs.
Depression is isolating. You learn to compensate publicly because people say stupid things like,
- “Why are you depressed?”
- “You’ve got everything going for you.”
- “Look at —- [some Godawful situation in the world]. They have it worse than you do.”
- “I don’t know what you’ve got to be depressed about.”
- “Cheer up! It can’t be that bad!”
- “Have you prayed about it? God will heal you.”
- “Do something nice for someone else.That always makes me feel better.”
- “God never gives you more than you can handle.”
You get sick of hearing this and dealing with the ignorance, so you pretend you’re fine. You really just want to be alone so you won’t have to be nice. Are people with spina bifada asked, “Why don’t you just go out in the sunshine and get your mind off it?”
These comics illustrate what some people with depression experience every day.
So many people have said, “They had it all. Why did they kill themselves?” Even with the best help available, no matter how much money you have, when that dark night of the soul appears, you’re alone. You just wait for everyone to get away from you because you’re exhausted acting happy. You don’t want to have to deal with the sadness any more.
And “they had it all”? Maybe they had too much. The nice young man who used to live across the street had a girlfriend, a guaranteed successful career, a good family. After attending his memorial service, I came away thinking: “He had it all, but it wasn’t what he wanted. It was what everyone else wanted him to have. He was trapped. This was the only way out he could find.”
The standard advice now is, “You’re not alone. Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.” And many people do; calls to the national hotline (and local numbers) jump 25% after suicides of famous people. But the thought of having to make a call and talk about the indescribable crushing weight is more than some depressed people can do.
I was never suicidal, though a few times I felt that if a runaway truck jumped the curb heading for me, I wouldn’t bother to get out of the way. And more than once I stared at a pair of scissors, idly wondering what it would feel like to score my thigh just a little bit. (I never found out.)
I am not saying this for sympathy; I don’t want any. I don’t think I am particularly brave for saying this. I know depression is out there, waiting for an opportune moment to invade my life, but I now have a better toolbox to help me through those episodes. I know where to get help if I need it, and I have had the life experiences to be able to have perspective on the depressive episodes so that they don’t swallow me alive. I am fortunate.
If you know someone who may be depressed:
- Do not say, “I know how you feel. I was really sad when my dog died.” Temporary sadness is not the same thing. You don’t know how they feel.
- Do not say, “Well, if you need anything, call me.” The depressed person will not call you. YOU call THEM.
- Do not say, “The Bible says suicide is an unforgivable sin.” Piling guilt, shame, and fear on top is SO not helpful. And not every depressed person is thinking of suicide.
- Call and arrange to show up with lunch. Sit down. Listen without judgement. Don’t offer advice unless asked. Then follow up. Call them again. Ask to meet for coffee, or come over with coffee.
Here is a guide on what to do if you think someone may be suicidal.
Throw out a hand they can reach for if they choose. Your efforts may or not pay off, but don’t not try because “I don’t know what to say.” Just listen.