Telling a depressed person to "shake it off" is not an effective way to treat the illness.
When I hear or read comments about suicide such as, "He was so selfish to do that", "How come she didn't think about her family?" or "Didn't he realize that he had so much to live for?" I realize that the people speaking these words have obviously never suffered a moment of depression in their lives. I'm actually happy for them, in that I don't wish depression on anyone. In fact, I never thought I would know what depression felt like, until I brought my first baby home from the hospital.
After a relatively uneventful pregnancy I had a tough labor and ended up with a C-section to deliver my very healthy (and very big!) baby. All seemed right with the world and my husband and I brought our little bundle of joy home to settle in for happily ever after. About two days later I felt as if a thick cloud of the most painful, thick misery had descended upon me. I couldn't name it, I could barely speak, and my labor and C-section seemed like a massage compared to the physical and emotional pain of that dreadful weight of depression.
Years later when I was reading the Harry Potter series, I came across the description of the Dementor's kiss. I was sure that J.K. Rowling had experienced depression at some point in her life based on her Dementor descriptions. The Dementor removes your soul with its "kiss" and the joy is sucked out of your life, although you physically live. That's what my bout with depression felt like to me. I only suffered those symptoms for about two weeks, which is considered postpartum blues. Whoever came up with that benign-sounding diagnosis certainly had never experienced a moment of those so called "blues."
Here's what was particularly scary about those two weeks for me: I was unable to verbalize what I was struggling with. I'm not shy about sharing my feelings, but suddenly I couldn't articulate my emotions. I didn't ask for help, I didn't tell my husband, and I told myself that if it continued on, I didn't want to live. I had almost no clear thoughts and just went through the motions of caring for my baby. I never thought of hurting him, but I'm not surprised that women in that state of mind sometimes do. The feelings were some of the most intense I have ever felt, and all I wanted to do was get into bed to avoid the pain.
After two weeks the sadness literally lifted and never returned; goodbye, black cloud. I never, ever want to feel what I felt in those two weeks again — yet that experience has profoundly changed how I view depression, mental illness, and suicide. There was absolutely nothing selfish about my behavior. (Trust me, I've done selfish before and this doesn't qualify!) I couldn't think in terms of anyone else or how they might be hurt or affected by my struggles. I just wanted the pain to end... and I would have done most anything to end it.
Depression is a serious illness. It's not an attitude or a little sadness or something that one can just shake off. It is a debilitating, extremely painful disease. It has nothing to do with self-centeredness or a lack of ability to be grateful. Would you ask someone who is having a seizure to shake it off or think of all that they have to be grateful for? If not, then you shouldn't do that with someone who suffers from depression or other mental illnesses.
And sometimes, depression snowballs into something much larger. Suicide is frequently a symptom of depression and thus not a selfish act, but one of true desperation to break free from the grip of depression. Someone who is depressed sees no way out because that is what the disease does to you. It steals your hopes, dreams, and motivations. So it's not surprising that addiction can often be a byproduct of depression: Drugs offer at least a temporary reprieve from the pain of depression.
I am a psychologist with years of education around mental illness, depression, and suicide, yet I am telling you this as simply a person who learned about it through personal experience. If someone you love is suffering from depression, they desperately need you to try to meet them with compassion and comfort. Judging or trying to "talk them out" of this disease will only add to their misery and feelings of inadequacy.
As a society we must learn to treat mental illness as an illness and not as an attitude. People with depression not only suffer from the disease but they also suffer from the stigma that is placed on that disease. Many see suicide as the only way out of the shame and pain that they are in.
Looking at things through a different lens: Why is it OK for us to tell others that we have cancer, yet refuse to let anyone know that we are depressed? Both are devastating illnesses that require medical attention. We must make it safe for someone with depression to say so, and to ask for help without fear of shame and societal judgment.
The next time you learn of a suicide in your community I ask you to take a moment before you judge that person. I ask you to think of the pain they were in and of the desperation they felt to end that pain. They weren’t selfish; they were ill and needed help. Suicide affects so many of us, either directly or indirectly, and needs to be addressed as we would any other devastating, life threatening illness. Please join me in removing the judgment and stigma around depression and suicide so that we may give a voice to so many that struggle.
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