Comedian and actor Robin Williams’ apparent suicide needs to shed light and perhaps educate people on Major Depressive Disorder (MDD, also known to most as just plain depression) being a silent killer without proper medication and/or long-term treatment. MDD is not sadness or a case of the blues we can just “snap out of,” but a real illness like diabetes or cancer equally difficult for not only the person who suffers, but also their friends and loved ones.
As someone who was diagnosed at age 21 with MDD and dysthymia and dealt with both for years, I can say firsthand they are not simple to alleviate as a common cold. Many MDD patients – including myself until the last few years – tend to make mistakes of discontinuing therapy and medication on our own when symptoms improved, often assuming treatment was no longer necessary. We may have continued feeling “normal” for a while longer, but several eventually returned to dark corners from where they never again emerged, their lives tragically ended by suicide.
According to The Center for Disease Control, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death among all ages in 2010, with an average of 105 suicides occurring each day. It is also the third leading cause of death among age groups of 15-24, fourth among those 35-54, and the eighth leading cause of death to those between ages 55-64 years old.
Suicides among males is four times higher than females, representing 79 percent of suicides in the United States, but suicides among women are highest among those age 45-54 – a rate of nine per 100,000!
Robin’s death is only one statistic; there were likely other suicides in the interim that never made headlines or even a small blurb in the back of local newspapers. Suicide has been described as a permanent solution to temporary problems, but what people fail to realize is there’s practically no way out once someone is in a suicidal mindset. Suicide is not a selfish act, but one to ease psychological and emotional pain. Thought patterns of those about to end their lives take over where nothing can be done; emotional turmoils are so intense that they can’t think rationally enough to consider other options.
I pray Robin is now at peace; to think this beautiful man who brought so much joy and laughter to people worldwide had to deal with MDD among his other demons. While I’m sure he had many people who loved and cared about him, it’s heartbreaking to think of someone so overwhelmed that ending his life was the only way to ease burdens felt at the end.
I’ve been at that brink on several occasions, but thanks to people who cared enough to pull me back from the edge of suicide, I’m still here. I now have plans in place if similar feelings ever return, complete with phone numbers and email addresses always at hand. If I’m unable to contact anyone, then the next step is heading to a nearby hospital.
MDD can also be a lonely disease. There’s neither enough notice nor social acceptance; critical changes are needed to raise awareness of MDD and mental illness in general. I recently saw a post by someone who counsels patients with depression, and first statements made by said patients were “I was afraid to tell anyone.” Did Robin feel the same way prior to his death? We may never know.
Dealing with the effects of MDD are especially difficult when someone has no family or other support system to address their problems. For these people, the next best things can be talking to counselors, medical professionals, or calling a hotline, but it’s nevertheless best to TELL SOMEONE what you’re going through before it’s too late.
There is no shame in voicing concerns over something that has taken over to the point where we can no longer take pleasure in activities we once enjoyed or isolated ourselves from the world because we’re afraid to let anyone know what is happening out of fear of being viewed as “strange” or “just being a drama queen/king” among other things.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that types of depression are likely caused by combinations of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brain parts of those with depression involving mood, thinking, sleep, appetite, and behavior appear different from those without it, but didn’t specify why depression occurs. Brain-imaging technologies can’t be used to diagnose MDD or any other form of depression.
Depression is more common among women with biological, life cycle, hormonal, and psychosocial factors that women experience may likely be linked to their higher rate, but men are obviously not exempt to this illness.
Men often experience depression differently; while women have feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and excessive guilt, men tend to feel tired, irritable, lose interest in once-pleasurable activities, and difficulty sleeping. Men are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and become angry, abusive, frustrated, discouraged, and throw themselves into work. While more women attempt suicide in the US, more men die by their own hand.
People with depression don’t always have the same symptoms, but most have experienced general signs:
Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
Fatigue and decreased energy
Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
Overeating, or appetite loss
Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease with treatment.
NIMH also recommends the following ways to help yourself or someone dealing with MDD and other forms of depression:
How can I help a loved one who is depressed?
If you know someone who is depressed, it also affects you. The most important thing to do is help get a diagnosis and treatment. Make an appointment and go with them to see the doctor. Encourage loved ones to stay in treatment, or to seek different treatment if there is no improvement after 6 to 8 weeks.
Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
Talk to him or her, and listen carefully.
Never dismiss feelings, but point out realities and offer hope.
Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to your loved one’s therapist or doctor.
Invite your loved one out for walks, outings and other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don’t push him or her to take on too much too soon.
Provide assistance in getting to the doctor’s appointments.
Remind your loved one that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.
How can I help myself if I am depressed?
If you have depression, you may feel exhausted, helpless, and hopeless. It may be extremely difficult to take any action to help yourself, but as you begin to recognize your depression and begin treatment, symptoms will improve.
Do not wait too long to get evaluated or treated. Research shows that longer someone waits, the greater the impairment later.
Try to be active and exercise. Go to a movie or another event or do an activity you once enjoyed.
Set realistic personal goals.
Break up large tasks into small ones, set priorities and do the best of your abilities.
Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative. Try not to isolate yourself; let others help you.
Expect your mood to improve gradually. Do not expect to suddenly “snap out of” your depression. Often during treatment for depression, sleep and appetite will begin to improve before your depressed mood lifts.
Postpone important decisions, such as getting married or divorced or changing jobs, until you improve Discuss decisions with trusted others when you have a more objective view of your situation.
Remember positive thinking will replace negative thoughts as your depression responds to treatment.
Continue to educate yourself about your type of depression.
No matter how long or what type of depression you have, the Suicide Prevention Hotline also wants to help find a reason to keep living if you ever reach a point where thought of harming yourself take over. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They will connect you to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area.
It may be too late for Robin…but I hope not too late for anyone reading this. If someone you know is facing a similar situation, don’t be afraid to step in. You not only may help save a life, but also play a role in turning that person around for the better.