This is a realization I had upon the announcement of Robin Williams’s death yesterday afternoon and the fact it was probably due to depression.
Oh, how precarious any mentally ill person’s mental health actually is.
Mental illness—any kind, but especially depression—is a thief. It only takes. It takes your energy. It takes away your will. It takes away your ability to find true happiness.
Depression, and by extension, the depressive phase of bipolar disorder (which I have extensive personal experience with), takes everybody’s power away. Not just the mentally ill person’s power, but also that of those around them. Loved ones and friends who want to help can’t. The best loved ones do their best to guide the depressed/bipolar-depressed person to the help they need: therapy and possibly medical assistance in the form of medication.
Unfortunately, that requires they be able to recognize the mentally ill person’s condition. Also from personal experience, I know to what lengths many, many mentally ill people go to in oder to disguise the fact they’re struggling emotionally. They will do everything in their power to appear normal, happy, well-adjusted. Some will self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs. Others will force themselves to function to hide the fact from everyone around them that they’re really walking the edge of an emotional cliff they’re terrified of falling off of.
And they invariably do.
Now, I can’t say whether Robin Williams’s family even had any sort of inkling about his mental state or, if they did, of its severity. I can say he was probably dealing with the collapse of his mental stability longer than anybody can guess. It takes a lot of courage for a mentally ill person, particularly someone who’s severely depressed enough to be contemplating suicide, to admit to being so “weak” emotionally.
And that’s where the stigma lies. The impression all mentally ill people who spend any time stable have that they’re supposed to be able to function, stand on their own, and be strong. When we see other people functioning well, and are fairly certain they’re not suffering as we are, it’s silent encouragement to be as strong as they are. When mentally stable people openly dismiss their own emotional struggles as something easy to get over (and yes, I understand, it is that easy for a fair number of people), it’s only further indication we who are mentally ill, particularly those of us who struggle with any variety of depression, are weak.
This of course only exacerbates the problem. Because, no matter how stable and functional we seem to be, a lot of mentally ill people always have a little doubt about themselves. We’re worried about being “normal.” We’re afraid of seeming “weak.” We’re terrified that if we seek the help we need when we begin to need it, others—the mentally stable—will think we’re whiners, complainers, and seeking undeserved attention. Depression is a “should” disease (“My life is good, so I should be happy—why can’t I be?”) and a disease of fear (“What if everyone else realizes I’m such a big whiney baby over something so stupid?”) and when we’re directly and indirectly encouraged to be something we’re not feeling, it only makes the doubts and fears worse, and, if the depressed person is trying to hide their mental instability, those doubts and fears eat away at what little joy and confidence we have.
Eventually, with this vicious circle spinning through their mind, a depressed person begins to see suicide as a viable way out. Depressed people develop debilitating beliefs, and one of them is commonly the belief they’re a burden on their friends and family, that they only hurt those around them with a selfishness they may only mistakenly perceive but which may, unhappily, be supported by comments and encouragement to Be Happy others give them. They can’t make themselves Be Happy for these other people, and that only makes it seem like they’re making everyone else unhappy, so they begin to think that if they only remove themselves from the equation, everyone else will be happy again.
You have to admit, it does make a twisted sort of sense.
The thing is, with healing from depression, it’s not as simple as telling yourself you are happy. Depression is frequently, particularly with clinically depressed individuals who rebound into self-medication and/or healthy therapies for mental health care, a chemical imbalance in the brain. Nobody can simply command their brain to level out the chemical imbalance. That just doesn’t happen, particularly with people in whose families there is a history of mental illness.
And the worst thing about depression is the power it takes away from the loved ones of the depressed person. It’s easy to figure out what to do if someone breaks an arm or leg, or falls down, or needs help in a move. One of the hardest things for me, in my depressive phases without medication, is watching those around me struggle to find a way to help me. That’s another thing which adds to the whole mess in such a way to make suicide seem like a good idea. Depressed people don’t know how to ask for help, and it hurts them to realize their loved ones are struggling with offering the assistance they need.
Depression is essentially a deep dark pit of hopelessness, and everything about the condition only buries the sufferer deeper in the pit. It separates the sufferer from those around them, makes them believe no one can care—because no one else can understand the depth of loneliness they’re suffering. And, even if the sufferer’s loved ones don’t feel the victim is a burden, it creates a kind of paranoia about it, no matter how much the depressed person is reassured otherwise.
And the worst is, not all sufferers of depression turn to obvious methods such as illegal drugs or alcohol to control their depression. I never did. I’ve known others who haven’t. The scariest part of depression for someone on the outside looking in is that it’s not always easy to spot. For some sufferers (like myself), the most obvious symptom of depression is not getting out of bed, and we all have days like that, particularly if we’re physically ill, and if the depressed person lives alone, there’s no one to see the regularity with which this happens. If the depressed person is determined not to betray their emotional condition to anybody, they may well force themselves to go to their job, socialize, and carry on an outwardly normal life as well as possible until they either suffer a complete emotional breakdown . . . or commit suicide.
I wish I could give a lot of advice on what mentally stable loved ones of those who suffer from depression can do to help. I can’t. My experiences with depression have only been from the depressed person’s perspective. All I really can say is that if you even suspect someone is depressed, you offer your time and attention. Talk to them, ask them how they’re feeling—demand honesty when you do, and be compassionate and offer to listen when that honesty is given. Do not tell them to buck up, or that things will get better, that all they need to do is put a positive light on things. Just . . . really listen to them. Promise you’ll be there to listen if they need you again later. And, if they give you the opportunity, or ask you to help them find the help they need, do so. Give or help them find a depression/suicide hotline number. Do your best to help them get into mental health care by researching local government mental health assistance organizations.
And, please, be respectful of their struggle. Don’t downplay it, and don’t tell anyone else what you’ve heard unless the depressed person gives you permission. It takes a lot of courage for a depressed person to admit to needing help, and if they’ve trusted you with the need, that means they trust you to not go around declaring their condition to all your friends (and if you do that, it may make the depressed person feel even worse because it tells them they couldn’t trust a friend, so why should they call a hotline and admit their struggles to a stranger, whom they have even less reason to trust?); treat their confession of instability like a gift and look for an opportunity to help them get into the mental health care they need.