Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

Some straight talk about depression, suicide and Robin Williams

As a depression survivor, I found this op-ed from the Guardian to be one of the most commonsensical takes surrounding the tragic death of beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams, who had reportedly been suffering from severe depression when he took his life on Monday.

From the Guardian, by Dean Burnett:

Depression IS an illness

Depression, the clinical condition, could really use a different name. At present, the word “depressed” can be applied to both people who are a bit miserable and those with a genuine debilitating mood disorder. Ergo, it seems people are often very quick to dismiss depression as a minor, trivial concern. After all, everyone gets depressed now and again, don’t they? Don’t know why these people are complaining so much.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; dismissing the concerns of a genuine depression sufferer on the grounds that you’ve been miserable and got over it is like dismissing the issues faced by someone who’s had to have their arm amputated because you once had a paper cut and it didn’t bother you. Depression is a genuine debilitating condition, and being in “a bit of a funk” isn’t. The fact that mental illness doesn’t receive the same sympathy/acknowledgement as physical illness is often referenced, and it’s a valid point. If you haven’t had it, you don’t have the right to dismiss those who have/do. You may disagree, and that’s your prerogative, but there are decades’ worth of evidence saying you’re wrong.

Depression doesn’t discriminate

How, many seem to wonder, could someone with so much going for them, possibly feel depressed to the point of suicide? With all the money/fame/family/success they have, to be depressed makes no sense?

Admittedly, there’s a certain amount of logic to this. But, and this is important, depression (like all mental illnesses) typically doesn’t take personal factors into account. Mental illness can affect anyone. We’ve all heard of the “madness” of King George III; if mental illness won’t spare someone who, at the time, was one of the most powerful well-bred humans alive, why would it spare someone just because they have a film career?

Depression is not “logical”

If we’re being optimistic, it could be said that most of those describing suicide from depression as selfish are doing so from a position of ignorance. Perhaps they think that those with depression make some sort of table or chart with the pros and cons of suicide and, despite the pros being far more numerous, selfishly opt for suicide anyway?

This is, of course, nonsensical. One of the main problems with mental illness is that is prevents you from behaving or thinking “normally” (although what that means is a discussion for another time). A depression sufferer is not thinking like a non-sufferer in the same way that someone who’s drowning is not “breathing air” like a person on land is. The situation is different. From the sufferers perspective, their self-worth may be so low, their outlook so bleak, that their families/friends/fans would be a lot better off without them in the world, ergo their suicide is actually intended as an act of generosity? Some might find such a conclusion an offensive assumption, but it is no more so than accusations of selfishness.

When you’re suffering from mental illness that is depression, I can attest that one’s thought processes become scrambled. Thoughts of death are constantly swirling through your head, and sometimes you fall into a state of suicidal ideation, where you obsessively consider killing yourself.

I would say that anyone who is experiencing suicidal ideation is going through a medical emergency. Someone should call 9-1-1 or take them to the nearest hospital’s emergency ward as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, Williams couldn’t be saved.

This reaction to his death, seen in a Globalnews.ca story, made me shake my head:

… A Hamilton, Ont. cop tweeted, “I truly wish you could have chosen to set a better example for those suffering with mental health challenges.” (He subsequently deleted the tweet and apologized for his “poor choice of words.”)

Williams was unlikely to be in a state of mind where he could have thought about setting a better example. He likely had a voice or voices in his head telling him to kill himself, and he succumbed.

It’s a tragic reminder that being wealthy, famous and beloved isn’t enough to protect people from the vicious disease that is severe depression.

Tue, August 12 2014 » * Big Picture Stuff, Main Page