In Which I Attempt to do Something Positive After a Tragedy

I wasn’t going to write about Robin Williams’ death this week.  As I said back in THIS post about the death of Harold Ramis, “I am not here to eulogize the man. Numerous news articles and reminiscences from people who actually knew him have covered his many contributions to the world of film and our popular culture.” 

Instead of talking about Williams’ contributions to our culture, I want to discuss what killed him.  As of this writing, reports indicate that he killed himself.  It wasn’t any kind of secret that Williams battled substance abuse issues and depression, and now both Williams and those who loved him are victims of their effects.  We all know the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction, but more attention needs to be paid to identifying and treating severe depression.

I’ve talked about the great respect I have for Wil Wheaton.  He also suffers from depression and has been very open and honest about his struggles on his blog.  THIS post gets to the heart of the matter with two simple words: Depression Lies. 

I am not going to try to describe what it feels like to be clinically depressed.  I honestly don’t know, and for that fact I am very grateful.  I have, however, seen first-hand its effects and am very aware of the destruction depression can cause.  Let’s talk statistics for a moment.  First off, depression is frighteningly prevalent.  According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance:

  • Major depressive disorder affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older, in a given year.
  • As many as one in 33 children and one in eight adolescents have clinical depression.
  • About six million people are affected by late life depression, but only 10% ever receive treatment.
  • Women experience depression at twice the rate of men. This 2:1 ratio exists regardless of racial or ethnic background or economic status. The lifetime prevalence of major depression is 20-26% for women and 8-12% for men.

The effects of depression extend far beyond the mood of the person suffering from the disorder:

  • People with depression are four times as likely to develop a heart attack than those without a history of the illness. After a heart attack, they are at a significantly increased risk of death or second heart attack.
  • Depression may increase a woman's risk for broken bones. The hip bone mineral density of women with a history of major depression was found to be 10-15% lower than normal for their age--so low that their risk of hip fracture increased by 40% over 10 years.
  • Depression ranks among the top three workplace issues, following only family crisis and stress.
  • Depression’s annual toll on U.S. businesses amounts to about $70 billion in medical expenditures, lost productivity and other costs. Depression accounts for close to $12 billion in lost workdays each year. Additionally, more than $11 billion in other costs accrue from decreased productivity due to symptoms that sap energy, affect work habits, cause problems with concentration, memory, and decision-making.

And there are two statistics that stand out in regards to Robin Williams:

  • 27% of individuals with substance abuse disorders (both alcohol and other substances) experience depression.
  • Depression is the cause of over two-thirds of the 30,000 reported suicides in the U.S. each year.

As harrowing as these statistics are, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Again, according to to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, 80% of people who receive treatment for depression improve within 4-6.  As Wil Wheaton stated in his blog post, medication “has made all the difference” in his life.

The hardest part seems to be for the person suffering from depression to take those first few steps.  They must admit to themselves that they have a problem, understand that they can’t deal with it alone, and then reach out for help.  Earlier I said that I haven’t suffered from depression myself.  That’s true.  But I have watched someone I care about sink into its clutches while I was unable to do anything to stop it.

That’s not to say that I didn’t try.  I’m not a mental health professional, so I didn’t recognize what was happening at first.  Instead, I did what I always do when someone I care about seems sad, I tried cheering them up.  When that didn’t work, I started looking for issues in the person’s life that maybe could be causing it.  If I could find something, maybe I could help fix it.  And when that didn’t improve the situation at all, I finally suggested that someone more professional should be consulted.

This…did not go over well.  I was met with defensiveness and excuses.  There was a dislike of therapy, a distrust of doctors, and a desire to avoid medication.  Multiple attempts on my part all failed, and I found myself frustrated by the fact that there was nothing I could do to convince this person that there was even a problem that needed to be addressed. 

You can’t force someone to get help for depression.  I don’t know if it’s different in other places, but in Maryland, where I live, the authorities won’t get involved unless the person is a danger to themselves or others.  By then it is very likely too late.  Fortunately, the person I’ve been discussing has finally faced the reality of their mental health issues and is doing well on medication.  It took almost having their entire life destroyed to get to that point, though.  Despite my efforts to help, I still felt both guilty even though I knew I was completely powerless to change the situation.

Everybody feels a bit down every now and then, but if you are experiencing these feelings for an extended period of time, it may be more than just a case of the blues.  There are several depression screening tests online, such as THIS ONE on the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance site.  Also, talk to your doctor.  Mental illness is just that: an illness.  Your doctor can help by prescribing medication and referring you to other resources.  And if you are considering taking your own life, grab a phone and call the National Suicide Prevention Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 in the US, or in Canada check THIS PAGE for a list of Crisis Centers.

The people who care about you likely already know that you are having difficulties, even if they don’t know the cause.  Maybe they’ve even suggested that you talk to someone.  These suggestions are not an attack against you.  They are given out of caring and concern.  For your sake as well as theirs, listen to what they have to say and then get help.

(Much of the information in this post came from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.  They are one of many mental health support and advocacy groups actively working to raise awareness of mental health issues.  Others include the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America (MHA).  These groups have a wealth of resources on their sites.  If you need help or are hoping to help someone you care about, they are a great place to start.)

 - Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter