The de­press­ing truth about men­tal ill­ness

CityPress - - Voices - Norma Young

We were stand­ing in a cir­cle stretch­ing when I heard the hearts of a few peo­ple col­lapse on to the soft green grass. “What a dumb-ass,” was the com­ment. “He had so much go­ing for him, why on earth did he do some­thing stupid like kill him­self.” Her opin­ions were true.

Robin Wil­liams did have a stel­lar ca­reer be­hind and ahead of him. And sui­cide is stupid – be­cause it of­fers no al­ter­na­tive. But her opin­ions were also false and so short­sighted.

Mine and the spir­its of the other peo­ple at that boot camp class dropped be­cause when life be­comes so grey, murky and tir­ing that you choose to end it, it’s a tragedy, not an ir­ri­ta­tion.

Any­one who has ever ex­pe­ri­enced the darker shades of blue knows that they oblit­er­ate all other tints and hues. There’s no colour wheel, no pri­mary tones, no shad­ing and no light.

The woman who made the in­sen­si­tive com­ment likely doesn’t know any­one who strug­gles with men­tal ill­ness, or if there are peo­ple in her close cir­cle, their chal­lenges are dis­tant from her.

In the mul­ti­ple con­ver­sa­tions I’ve par­tic­i­pated in and over­heard about de­pres­sion over the past few days, I’ve won­dered what it must feel like to be in the throes of this mon­ster and have the world talk about it. Some of us will have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the ill­ness and oth­ers sim­ply won’t.

My own sea­sons of be­yond-navy have given me greater sen­si­tiv­ity to de­pres­sion, but I have my own in­sen­si­tiv­i­ties and hope­ful, but un­in­formed, so­lu­tions.

So I want to apol­o­gise for all the times I’ve made a bad day worse. And even for see­ing a de­bil­i­tat­ing med­i­cal con­di­tion as merely a “bad day”. I’d like to also be so bold as to apol­o­gise on be­half of so­ci­ety.

I’m not sure of the roots of the stigma around de­pres­sion, but in what is os­ten­si­bly mod­ern so­ci­ety, we re­main sur­pris­ingly an­ti­quated in our re­sponse to it.

In an age of free­dom and open­ness, de­pres­sion should be af­forded the same re­spect and ten­der­ness given to other dis­eases like can­cer and di­a­betes. But it isn’t. And that can only make it more dif­fi­cult to deal with a di­ag­no­sis.

We don’t be­lieve enough hugs and flow­ers will ap­pease leukemic cells, nor are we so naïve as to be­lieve we know how to cure fi­bromyal­gia. And we cer­tainly would never sug­gest to an am­putee that they must “get over” their lost limb.

As a so­ci­ety, we don’t han­dle de­pres­sion with grace, em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion. But we have the means and the re­sources to be­gin cor­rect­ing our at­ti­tudes and re­sponses.

I wanted to ac­knowl­edge some of my re­cent lessons and un­der­stand­ings about de­pres­sion, and hope­fully, to­gether, we can lift some of the un­cer­tainty and con­fu­sion that stig­ma­tises it.

Here are three things I’ve come to know about de­pres­sion:

It can come back: I used to think de­pres­sion was a one-off ill­ness like mumps. The length of time would dif­fer for each in­di­vid­ual, but ul­ti­mately you would be cured and that dark chap­ter would be closed. I know now that it is ac­tu­ally a chronic ill­ness with ebbs and flows; and that af­ter even a long sea­son of respite, it can crash back into your life.

It is not the same for ev­ery­body: When I was in high school, a class­mate at­tempted to com­mit sui­cide. I was sad, but not sur­prised be­cause she was a trou­bled kid who had spent time in de­ten­tion and had nearly been ex­pelled be­fore this at­tempt. I in­cor­rectly linked her re­bel­lion to a cer­tain de­pres­sion type­cast. De­pressed peo­ple demon­strate a cer­tain fixed set of symp­toms, I as­sumed. But that’s not true. Suc­cess­ful peo­ple can be de­pressed. Both in­tro­verts and ex­tro­verts can be de­pressed. Even “happy” peo­ple can be de­pressed.

It can’t be loved away: There are some mis­in­formed links be­tween de­pres­sion and low self-es­teem. I’ve come to re­alise that de­pres­sion is not just feel­ing down be­cause you’ve gained weight or are los­ing hope be­cause you didn’t get a cer­tain job. I’ve come to re­alise it ac­tu­ally isn’t al­ways a dis­ease of cause and ef­fect. I’ve come to re­alise that en­cour­ag­ing a de­pressed person to count their bless­ings can in­val­i­date what they’re think­ing and feel­ing. I know that my three re­al­i­sa­tions are only the begin­ning of the jour­ney to­wards bet­ter un­der­stand­ing de­pres­sion. But I also know the restora­tive power of be­ing heard.

As the world mourns the pass­ing of Robin Wil­liams, know that your strug­gles are not an iso­lated bat­tle.

The world may not al­ways un­der­stand what you’re go­ing through, but from ther­a­pists and re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions to com­pas­sion­ate friends, there are peo­ple who are will­ing and able to go through the maze with you.

As the world mourns the pass­ing of Robin Wil­liams, know that your strug­gles are not an iso­lated bat­tle

PHOTO: AP

SO LONG Robin Wil­liams in hap­pier times

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