I just sat down to write Part III of the Meditation to Improve Body Image series—but then I read the news about Robin Williams and now I can’t think of much else. Some reports are saying he died by suicide. I know he has struggled with addiction, and his spokesperson said he was “severely depressed.” Although details are sketchy right now, I just wanted to take a breath and ponder the real damage that mental illness causes.
Depression does not care about your gender, age, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—it is an equal-opportunity destroyer. Depression isn’t about feeling kind of sad or sorry for yourself. It’s blackness and emptiness. It has nothing to do with how weak or strong you are; it is not a character flaw. It’s feeling like you’re a void. It causes despair. My words don’t do it justice. The writer of the blog Hyperbole and a Half describes her experience with depression better than I ever could.
And suicide isn't the “coward’s way out.” It isn't selfish. Often, the individual is suffering such pain, that death seems to be the only relief. I remember a pastor’s words during the eulogy at a funeral of a young man who died by suicide: “He succumbed to the illness of depression.”
According to the National Association for Mental Illness, approximately 25 million individuals will experience a major depressive episode this year. And according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, in the U.S., depression is the cause of more than two-thirds of suicides.
The good news is that depression is treatable. Medications, psychotherapy, expressive arts, diet changes, and exercise all help combat the symptoms. But data show that only about one-half of those who suffer actually seek treatment. As a culture, we need to remove the stigma of depression and mental illness. Mental health clinics that provide services to the poor are closing in Chicago; those with insurance often find less-than-adequate coverage for mental health services. People start believing they are “beyond” help.
In our individualistic culture, those suffering from depression are often left to suffer alone in silence. If you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you’re written off as weak. Hopelessness grows. But we don’t have to accept this.
I’m not sure how many of our friends and loved ones have to die from depression before our thinking shifts. There are ways for us to get involved and to advocate for those who suffer.
If you’re feeling depressed or suicidal, help is available. You can call 1-800-273-TALK anytime; or, even simpler, just dial 9-1-1. You’re not weak or just looking for attention or needy or whatever you’re telling yourself. Your pain can be healed.
Robin Williams has been silenced by depression—the talent and energy have been stilled. And his family has been left behind to grieve. But we can help keep his light alive by supporting treatment for depression and other mental illnesses.
Rest in peace, Robin Williams.
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