Depression – An Unnecessary Stigma
Depression is an ailment that affects the body just like any other illness. The difference with depression is that it primarily impacts an individual’s mind, emotions, outlook, and attitude. Manifestations of depression are similar to those that might be created by other bodily ailments; however, attitudes about depression are usually associated with an individual being weak or lacking an ability to cope instead of being a legitimate medical issue that requires treatment.
After learning about Robin Williams’ death, I happened to do a cursory review of my Facebook timeline. It was at this moment I became alarmed and disturbed by a judgmental question made about the reason for his death. This question basically asked, “How could anyone give-up on life since we’re all in this together?”
This question was disturbing to me as it’s this type of commentary that prevents many individuals who suffer from depression from disclosing it. Furthermore, insensitive and naïve comments compound the difficulty individuals have to admit any mental health challenge, begin treatment, and prevent unnecessary negative outcomes.
My response to this Facebook message was, “Life has so many ebbs and flows. It’s very difficult to know the way someone is feeling on the inside as oftentimes individuals are fighting a private battle that no one else knows anything about it. Then, individuals are shocked because they never saw it coming. Well sometimes these individuals (like me recently) didn’t see it coming either and wake-up with it already inside of them --- as it’s not a part of them. Therefore, whether you know of someone’s internal battles or not, if something appears to be different, ask them questions and don't be afraid to ask. As that moment of hesitation … may be the last moment that might keep that individual alive. Once an individual is gone isn’t the time to speculate about the potential reasons, the time to speculate and ask questions is now --- before it’s too late. Rest in peace --- Robin Williams!!!”
In responding to this post, I did something that I needed to do but couldn’t previously determine a way to communicate my battle with depression. Once I self-identified the issue in 2012 and during my recovery, I wrote, prayed, and used very controlled disclosures about my mental health challenges. After the insensitive Facebook remark about Mr. Williams’ suicide, I shared publicly for the first time information about my battles with depression. Prior to this personal disclosure, the biggest barriers to my inability to communicate my legitimate medical challenges were related to: unnecessary fears about sharing my struggles which heightened my level of depression, a concern about others’ perceptions about me if this information was revealed, and the stigma associated with admitting to being depressed --- even to myself.
After indirectly disclosing that I had considered ending my life, I decided to go even further to reveal to my Facebook family and friends that I had been depressed and moments from committing suicide. Part of the message shared was, “There’s never a good way to share bad news; however, I will be direct. My life has been absolutely miserable for the past 2 1/2 years due to a situation that was out-of-my-control. This issue caused me to go into periods of deep depression, uncontrolled emotional outbursts, and this last March I was moments from committing suicide. I wrote my post yesterday about not knowing someone’s challenges - related to Robin Williams - because it directly relates to me; the smiles and happiness I pretended to have were just my outward attempt to cope with desperation and despair.”
The amount of concern and support received after my public disclosure was overwhelming. A response received via a private Facebook message from a former student was especially jolting, “…Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but you as my professor made such an impact on my life, you have no idea. You have so many students in and out of your classroom every year and your story resonates with each of them. My son, who was suffering from depression and severe anxiety, finally this past month got a job and is working full-time. He is connecting with old friends and is talking about going back to school. I kept impressing upon him your story and showing him your books. I know it made difference. … You my dear friend would be missed, I hope you realize that. And the stamp you left in my life and thus the life of those I touch is never ending.”
This type of message is great, but the challenge is that most times similar messages are communicated after someone is badly hurt or dead. This is a significant reason that it’s critical that individuals slow down, share their love for others now, and occasionally don’t be afraid to ask if someone is okay --- especially if there are noticeable changes in their appearance, habits, attitudes, or activities.
Mental health concerns shouldn’t be viewed as a weakness, but instead as an urgent medical need. Therefore, let’s collectively remove the unnecessary and preventable shame that is created by making anyone feel that any type of medical condition is a weakness --- including mental health challenges such as depression.
As for me, the only reason that I didn’t commit suicide that day was because of my mother. The day I was going to commit suicide, I called my brother Johnnie – while trying to keep my emotions in check – to ensure that he would take care of our mother if I was unable to do so. Fortunately for me two things happened: (1) I broke down during our call and (2) my bother started asking questions, kept calling back after I hung up the phone, and made me face my own reality by telling me to use the advice in my books to help myself. If my brother hadn’t recognized my medical emergency, asked questions immediately, demonstrated love and support, I’m certain that I wouldn’t be alive today to share my story.
I didn’t want to share my story, but it’s important to do so anyway. Not only for my recovery, but by making these public disclosures I hope to inspire others to not feel embarrassed, ashamed, or fearful by also communicating that they’re struggling and need help.
Remember from the day we’re born until the day we’re buried, we don’t do anything alone. Therefore, don’t be afraid to disclose your struggles and ask for help. Being vulnerable to share your challenges isn’t a weakness but instead a strength; the challenge many times is convincing yourself otherwise.
As for Robin Williams, your body of work will help so many others who will watch your many artistic masterpieces to help make themselves better. You didn’t find your peace while alive, but in your untimely ending you have helped me to rediscover mine. Your tragic ending is unfortunate, but my renewed strength is because of your personal sacrifice, which will allow me to now help many others because of you.
Robin Williams --- May God bless you, your family, and all of those who loved your spirit, your work, and you.
Anyone who requires assistance should contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 1-800-273-8255.
A collection of Mr. Young’s articles and interviews about depression are available at: www.slyoung.com/depression.html
Additional information about Mr. Young’s journey to overcome his depression and near-suicide can be obtained in his books “Choosing to Take a Stand: Changed me, my life, and my destiny” and “Turning Darkness Into Light: Inspiring Lessons After a Near-Suicide“.