Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams: The Death of a Funnyman | Why Suicide Prevention Hotlines Aren't Enough

Everybody is talking about Robin Williams.  He took his own life three days ago, and it shook the world.  We find it difficult to understand how someone who made all of us laugh so hard could have had so much despair in his own life.

As a person who has suffered with Depression for over two decades, I feel compelled to answer some of the questions and respond to some of the comments I've read and heard in the past couple of days.

I think something that people are beginning to understand from this tragedy is that Depression does not discriminate.  It doesn't matter how much money a person has, how successful a person is or how many admirers they have, Depression is a clinical illness that can affect anyone.  Unfortunately there are still those with the uneducated opinion that Robin Williams was "selfish" and that there are people worse off than he was.  To those people I say: It's just not that easy.  I will elaborate further in this entry.

In the past few days there have been many people with their hearts in the right place tweeting, Facebooking and blogging the advice to talk to someone, call a suicide prevention hotline, reach out if you're depressed.  That is really good advice for those who can take it.  The problem with severe Depression is that it changes our way of thinking and feeling.  When we are going through a bout of Depression, we hate the way that we are.  We feel burdened by ourselves.  We don't want to burden anyone else with what we are experiencing.  We believe the lies in our heads that we are unlovable, unworthy and we don't belong.  We tend to feel that others with Depression are more worthy of help than we are ourselves.  This creates a barrier which makes it incredibly difficult to reach out.

Many people have said things along the lines of, "If only Robin Williams had known how many people loved him," or "If only he could have had the joy in his life that he gave to all of us."  Depression is a strange beast.  A person can have much love and joy in their life, but when a bout takes over all of that love and joy is unreachable.  We don't forget it, we just don't believe it.  It doesn't fit in our state of being.  It's incomprehensible to us that such things could have ever existed or could ever again exist for us.  So, even though we have the memories of happy times, we do not believe that they were real.

Scientifically, Depression is caused by misfiring of chemicals within the brain.  When going through a bout we are physically incapable of experiencing emotion the way the average person would.  Saying that someone is selfish for the way that Depression took their life is akin to blaming a person for dying of cancer.  Do I condone suicide?  Absolutely not.  Do I understand suicide?  Absolutely.  Just as a severe bout of Depression strips one of the ability to experience positive emotion, those moments before one commits or attempts suicide are void of anything aside from pain and desperation.  Nothing else exists in those moments.  A person who is in those depths of Depression is enveloped in despair, fear and hopelessness.  There is no light at the end of the tunnel in sight.  It is as though the person is already dead, but it is up to the person to stop their own heart from beating.  When I look back at those deepest depths of my Depression I can literally see nothing but darkness.  There is no light in those memories because nothing outside of the despair existed.

So, what advice can I give to someone with Depression?  The most important thing is to establish a support system.  Talk to your friends and family when you are not going through a bout (or before a bout takes such a hold on you that you are not able to reach out).  Find out who you can count on and turn to when you do need support.  Not everyone is going to be someone to turn to, and that's okay.  It is essential to know this ahead of time.  Remember that when you need people the most is when it will be the most difficult to reach out to them.  No matter what your Depression is telling you, go to your support system -- that is what they are there for.  It can be hard to put into words what you are feeling when going through a bout, but even if you tell someone in your support system that you are feeling confused, they can help you through it.  If you are experiencing Depression for the first time you may not recognize it as such.  If you feel hopeless, worthless or begin to not recognize your own emotions, please see a doctor.

If someone you care about begins to act differently -- withdrawn, overly pessimistic, change in appetite and/or sleeping pattern, sad often, difficulty making decisions -- reach out to them.  Let them know that you are there for them.  It may be easier for someone who is Depressed to accept an invitation to talk than it is for them to take that leap on their own.  If someone you know is Depressed, don't wait for them to "snap out of it."  Urge them to see a doctor, remind them that you are there for them and let them cry on your shoulder.  If you think that someone you know is suicidal, don't ignore it.  Call an ambulance and don't leave them alone.  Depression is a serious illness.  Compassion and understanding can save lives.