The depressing truth about mental illness

2014-08-20 11:00

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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 short-sighted.

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.

Robin Williams in happier times. Picture: AP

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.

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