Robin Williams and all of our Super Philosophies

*All quotes are from the book Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You by Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.

Suicide, the ‘worst case’ outcome of depression, is officially the tenth most common cause of death in America. There are 33,000 documented suicides annually, but the true incidence is probably double that (because police and medical examiners prefer not to label ambiguous, solitary deaths as suicide). One out of every two hundred people will eventually take their own lives. And although I personally think that suicide can sometimes be a rational choice for people who are in intractable pain or facing great disability, the vagueness of the boundary lines means that we have no reliable data on how many suicides are people who are really depressed, versus how many are ‘rational.’ My experience is that far, far more suicides are truly depressed. Among adolescents, the suicide rate has quadrupled in the past twenty-five years.

The internet is all abuzz with conversations revolving around the tragic passing of the beloved Robin Williams. I have read a whole wide range of posts today – some that spewed varying levels of indignation and ignorance regarding depression and suicide, but many more that exuded courage as individuals vulnerably detailed their own encounters with mental illness. So tonight I am compelled to add my voice to the many others, not as a therapist per se (though clearly my profession impacts my perspective), but as another person who has known depression intimately. From my own family history of depression and suicide attempts, a personal encounter with a single major depressive episode, to the recent loss of a dear friend – I am painfully aware of the impact of this particularly haunting mental illness.

As the above quote indicates, depression and suicide are a serious epidemic in our world today. It is a deeply complex and fascinating illness, that cannot be summed up in any single blog post, but that acknowledgment should not serve as an excuse to avoid the conversation altogether. And y’all, I think we all need to start really dialoguing about these issues. Dialoguing requires the capacity, first and foremost, to really listen – to learn from those who know the subject matter intimately. May we all let those who have been gripped most severely by the suffocating hand of depression and those who have walked along side the many who have suffered become our greatest teachers. We may discover that we all have a part in perpetuating a culture and climate that primes the soil for such an illness to thrive.

Stressful jobs lead to a marked increase in major depression and anxiety disorders in previously healthy young people. Instead of a cooperative world where your life’s value is defined by how well you contribute to your community, we have a competitive society that tries to measure your value by your income and possessions. Instead of a world of social ties and ritual that provides security in virtually every aspect of your life, we have a world of me-first. Instead of the sense of belonging to a community, we have the anxiety of unemployment and homelessness. So for the past twenty-five years in both the United States and Europe, rates of anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders have been accelerating every year; in 2006, Americans spent an estimated $76 billion a year on antidepressants. Now health authorities predict that soon depression will be the world’s second largest public health concern.

…Mental health is dependent on society; the culture must give parents the opportunity to love their children; must honor justice and fair play; must provide hope through opportunities available to all. Thus the world of work, the family , and the larger community all affect not only the current state of mind of the individual but the ability of the individual ever to achieve a state of emotional health.

As many of us are lamenting over that fact that mental illness still carries such a deeply rooted stigma (which often leads to a shame that can completely obstruct one’s journey towards healing) and many more are crying out for an increase and improvent in mental health services and resources, I am left wondering how the world might look different if we embraced a “village mentality.” Perhaps we are not as powerless as we might feel in the face of the darkness that is depression. The often burried idealist in me longs to believe that as a society, or a community, or a church, or a neighborhood, or a family, we can become a safe place for those suffering in an internal isolation. Because the truth is, we’re ALL in need of a much safer world.

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