Swimming in depression
He was “swimming in depression.” This man, whom we’ll call John Doe, was sinking deeper and deeper into a dark place, a melancholic morass.
This was about 20 years ago, before social media, emoticons, and chat rooms, an era before people used technology to share every detail of their lives with complete strangers. This was a period before Google could provide all the answers.
Like most men, middle-aged John did not talk about his feelings. So he quietly dealt with his sadness, which washed over him in waves. Hopelessness engulfed him. His moribund mood begin to affect his health.
His marriage was on the rocks; his grown children weren’t talking to him; his business was suffering.
Mr. Doe did have many friends and aquaintances. They met on a regular basis, to have a few drinks, gripe about the world and occasionally play board games.
His friends noticed that Mr. Doe was not handling his personal troubles all that well.
“He doesn’t look good. He has let himself go. What’s with that scraggly beard? And since when did he take to wearing only black sweatpants to work?”
“Leave him alone. We should just butt out and mind our own business. Everyone gets a little down once in a while. Once the divorce is finalized, he will be back on his feet again.”
The amateur psychiatrists were divided on a course of action.
“I think he needs help, professional help. There is no shame in admitting to yourself that that you might have a mental health problem.”
“That is the last thing he wants to do. I know of this guy who went to a shrink and since word got out he had a mental illness, his life has never been the same. People look at him differently. Customers don’t like dealing with sad people. The other employees were afraid to say anything to him -- they were afraid he would snap.”
His friends said nothing to John, whose behaviour grew erratic.
He began driving around the countryside in the middle of the night, showing up at all hours at friends’ homes, sleeping in the middle of the day for 12 hours non-stop. Mr. Doe tried to find relief in the bottom of a liquor bottle.
On a glorious clear Summer day, Mr. Doe would close all the curtains and sit in the dark, staring at the wall.
He gradually retreated, shutting himself off, refusing invitations to get-togethers with his buddies.
One day, as a friend drove by his house and saw his lawn had not been cut in weeks, he stopped and knocked on the door.
After some coaxing, Mr. Doe finally emerged from the darkened house, and let his friend in. Mr. Doe had obviously not slept nor bathed in weeks. The visitor did not have to ask him how he was. Before he could speak, John blurted out: “If I kill myself, what happens to my life insurance?” “You’re not serious, are you?” “Of course I am. I have enough drugs here to do it.”
As the alarm bells sounded in his brain, Mr. Doe’s friend realized that he could no longer mind his own business. Something had to be done. Mr. Doe never did attempt suicide. But pulling him out of that vortex was not easy. His friends used every means possible to convince him that life, his life, was worth living. But he resisted. To him, reaching out was a sign of weakness. He kept riding a rollercoaster of emotions. He was giddy one moment, angry the next.
To make a long story short, John Doe did eventually receive treatment. “I got sick of being sick.”
Today, while he is no longer “swimming in depression,” he says, “I still have some bad days, particularly when the weather is dreary. But I am doing better. It’s something I live with. I just have to take these pills for the rest of my life.”
We all know John, or someone a lot like him. And tragically, we also know of people who took their own lives. Suicide accounts for about 25 per cent of all deaths among people aged 15 to 24, and for 16 per cent of deaths in the 25-44 age bracket.
The world has obviously changed in two decades. When John was diagnosed with a mental illness, the topic was rarely discussed anywhere.
Attitudes have changed towards what was once a taboo subject. Initiatives such as Bell’s Let’s Talk program have helped lift the “cloak of secrecy” around mental illness. Ad campaigns encourage people to be more accepting of people who have mental illness.
Yet, the Canadian Medical Association reports that 27 per cent of Canadians are fearful of being around people with mental health problems.
And only 49 per cent of Canadians said they would socialize with a friend who has a serious mental illness.
This would explain why two in three people suffer in silence, fearing judgment and rejection.
Why would anyone ostracize somebody because he or she is sick? Nobody would shun a diabetic or steer clear of an asthma sufferer.
Chances are that, whether we know it or not, sooner or later we will encounter someone who has “issues.” People with mental health problems live among us. One in five Canadians will experience a form of mental illness.
Some three million Canadians are suffering from depression.
Mood and anxiety disorders affect a quarter of the population.
Only one of five children who needs mental health services receives them.
Eleven people will end their lives by suicide today – and every day – in this country. So, what can you do? For starters, we should all know better, but often we must be reminded to hit the “edit” button before speaking.
Talking is the first step towards meaningful change and building greater awareness, acceptance, and action. But don’t start shooting your mouth off if you do not have anything constructive to say.
Use of terms such as “psycho” or “nut” is not helpful. Harsh words, stupid gestures, insensitive “jokes” can really hurt.
We can never pretend to understand what is going on between a person’s ears or what kind of internal hell would drive a person to consider ending it all.
The Canadian Mental Health Association offers advice on how to help.
Treat a person who has a mental illness with the kindness and care you give to people with other illnesses through a friendly smile, a helping hand, a phone call or visit.
Don't trivialize someone's illness. Instead, say: “I’m sorry to hear that, it must be a difficult time. Is there anything I can do to help?” Break the silence. Talk about how mental illness touches us all in some way directly or through a friend, family member or colleague. Stories of lived experience are the best way to help eradicate stigma.
Then again, sometimes it’s best to just listen.
When their friend spoke of suicide, they knew they had to butt in