Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression: It's Not What It Looks Like

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine in the professional ministry ended her life.  Yesterday morning Robin Williams apparently committed suicide.  Here are some things they have in common:

  • Both were relatively young;
  • Both were relatively healthy (physically speaking);
  • They both had careers that were meaningful;
  • They were both highly successful in their careers (meaning that others respected and appreciated their work and they knew this);
  • They each had families and friends who loved them;
  • They both presented themselves to the world as people who "had a lot to live for" and who genuinely appreciated life -- theirs in particular and "life" abstractly;
  • They both struggled with depression but had help;
  • They both committed suicide.

In the wake of William's death a lot of people are writing a lot of things about depression.  Some are very helpful; some are not.  The former are generally written by people who have (or have had) their own first-hand experience(s) with depression.  It's hard for anyone who hasn't to really understand it.  (It can be hard for those of us who have to understand it, too!)

One of the things I read today was this piece, "21 Things Nobody Tells You About Depression," by Alexis Nedd.  (And as with any good blog post there are links within that are worth following.)  I encourage people to read it, and anything else that attempts to tell it like it is.

It's funny, though.  If you do a Google image search on the word "depression" what comes up is a whole lot of pictures of people with their head in their hands, sitting in near darkness, alone, knees up, or literally up against a wall (like this one to the right). Lots of black and white.  Lots of use of shadow.

What you don't see too often is ... well ... someone like Robin Williams.  You don't see someone full of energy, full of life.  We don't depict depression with a picture of someone heartily laughing, or making others laugh.  We don't show it with images of people going about their lives, being successful, doing meaningful things and doing them well.

And that can make it hard for folks to recognize -- even to believe -- that the people they know are "really" suffering.  It can make it hard for people to acknowledge the real struggle depressed people may be having even when they're looking like everything's fine.  This can also make it hard for people wrestling with depression to ask for help -- we don't want to disappoint people's positive perceptions of us, and we understand that it can be hard for people to believe.  It can also deepen our negative feelings about ourselves and our sense of hopelessness -- "My God," we might say, "everybody else thinks I have a great life, everybody else thinks I'm a great person, there must be something really wrong with me that I feel so awful!"

Depression can be, of course, mind and body numbing.  It can crush you deep into the couch with a blanket on top of you and a marathon of Law and Order: SVU in front of you.  But it can also be the constant companion who is just underneath the surface of an otherwise normal-looking life.

Pax tecum,


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Heidi Poon said...

The marathon of Law and Order should make the top 10 things people do when depressed. SVU.

RevWik said...

Personally I prefer NCIS, but I have spent my share of time with Benson and Stabler, too ...

Anonymous said...

Just finished Big Love. It's like there is a magnet in my rear that once attached to the couch, that is it for the day. Depression shows is ugly head more when you are alone, whispers in your ear, telling lies. But I think that is why I personally give so much to others. I recognize the hurt, self doubt, need, isolation. It makes me a better person that I have to work so hard to be whole. I have always said my star may be short, but it will burn bright. Statistically, people with mental health issues just don't live as long. The stress that it puts on the body is immense, like burning the candle at both ends all the time. But I do try, I eat right, exercise, go to therapy, go to church, have a social life. In other words, do the best I can. And I will continue to do so as long as I am able. <3

Lisa Kelly said...

Wow, it surprises me how you can get right to the heart of the matter Rev. Wik ... I'm glad your my Reverend, and I'm glad you are also my friend.

robynsews said...

The death of Robin Williams has left me feeling helpless and vulnerable.

RevWik said...

You're not alone in that. I've read and heard people in the last couple of days saying things like, "If it could be this bad for him then how can I possibly fight it?" And, "If no one could help him, how can I hope to help me ?"

Dave Dawson said...

For me it involved 12 Step work with others who shared the problem. It was compassion for each other that made the difference.

Anonymous said...

Suicidality and depression may not be as closely linked as once thought. People, apparently, can have thoughts of suicide without being depressed. I think this is especially the case for people who struggle with substance use disorders. The compulsion to use substances can be a terrible master. It's plausible that suicide might seem like the only "answer" after years of fighting the beast. Depression is no fun (BTDT). It doesn't always put one at risk for suicide. BTW...in today's parlance, people die from suicide, rather than "commit" it. Someone can no more "commit" suicide than they can "commit" a heart attack. It's a mental illness at its most fatal. We have begun to work towards less stigmatizing language around suicidality.

RevWik said...

Thanks for helping me improve my sensitivity to, and understanding of, the way(s) language can be stigmatizing. I am so glad that I, and we as a culture, continue to learn.

You're right, too, to note that suicide and depression are not a one-to-one correlation. Besides depression and addiction, chronic illness can lead one to take steps to end one's own life, as well as other triggers, too. Important to remember, even as Robin Williams' death is focusing a light on the specific depression/suicide linkage.

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