This wasn’t the topic I had planned to write about today, but I know I can’t shake this without writing it out. This week has been full of loss all around me, and, even though I have known none of the people who died personally, I find myself grieving nonetheless. Several of my friends lost fathers. Two famous creators died of suicide. I feel the weight of grief in my communities, both locally and online, and it is heavy on my soul right now. The bell is tolling for me.
Two of my friends who lost their fathers are Christ followers who are comforted by the fact that they will see their fathers soon enough in heaven with Jesus. They are embarking on a new chapter in their stories without main characters who played vital roles in their lives up to now. No doubt the new chapters will continue to tell their fathers’ stories in the legacies that they left in these two beautiful souls. That may eventually be some earthly comfort after the shock and pain fade a bit.
The world’s loss of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in a week’s time is certainly tragic, as are some of the public’s reactions in the comments sections of the news articles reporting their deaths. I am by no means a mental health expert, but I am a person who is surviving the mental illness of depression. Some people are quick to point out that suicide is a selfish act, leaving devastated loved ones in its wake. While that may be accurate from a mentally healthy perspective, healthy, rational people do not commit suicide. Sick people do. Others have pointed out that both Spade and Bourdain had much to live for with successful careers and wealth. Depression is not a disease that discriminates between rich and poor, successful and not. You may be more prone to depression if your circumstances are difficult, but you are not exempt because your circumstances are better.
Depression that isn’t a passing reaction to loss or life upheavals is just as much a chemical, physical illness as cancer or diabetes. Depression isn’t simply a mental state one can just snap out of. Maybe it’s hard to think of as a disease because we can’t physically see its effects like we can with cancer. It’s easy to assume someone is lazy or unmotivated or has anger management issues or drinks too much without seeing the underlying disease because the sick person appears physically whole. We also use the same word to name episodic depression and chronic depression, major depression and mild depression. We don’t do this with diseases like cancer that have specific names for specific types of cancer, even though they all float under the header of “cancer.”
Someone can tell you that they had melanoma or breast cancer, but they can’t tell you they had liver or kidney depression; they can’t even narrow it to a physical place in the brain, even though major and chronic depression physically and chemically alter your brain.
The symptoms of depression are generally not physical and are not often recognized as depression. Some of the symptoms even appear to be character flaws rather than signs of a disease: sadness, anger, sleeping too much, isolation, overeating, not eating at all, drinking too much, misusing prescription drugs, lack of motivation… One at a time, these problems may be a character flaw that can be corrected, but more than one symptom or symptoms that linger for more than a few weeks may be a serious mental health issue.
My opinion is that because so many symptoms of depression are seen as character flaws individually, the stigma surrounding depression is rooted in the belief that one could just start forming new habits and counteract the bad stuff.
We tend to think the same thing about alcoholics and drug users: “Just stop drinking. That’ll fix it.” Except it won’t. Behavior modifications and the development of healthy coping skills will help depression symptoms, but it may not be enough to keep the disease in check. You may need medication – I did – or therapy – I do that, too – or maybe you need inpatient care for a while. Never feel ashamed for seeking help. If you are depressed, tell someone. At least tell a friend if seeking medical help feels impossible. There is no shame in seeking to treat a medical condition, which is exactly what depression is. We would never tell someone with cancer to just get up and exercise and eat healthier and expect them to be okay. We wouldn’t tell someone with diabetes to skip the insulin and eat all the sugar they want because their disease is all in their head. We wouldn’t tell someone with scoliosis to stand up straight and get over it.
We don’t vilify people who die of cancer: we talk about them in warrior terms. “He fought to the end, but it was too advanced.” Why are we willing to vilify people who die of depression? We are fighting for our lives, too.
Of course, suicide isn’t a solution, and it’s selfish, and it’s probably more painful for the surviving loved ones who will face some hard questions and issues in their grief. But depression lies. It tells you that you don’t matter – that nothing matters – and suicidal depression is more insidious in its lies because it tells you that the world will be better off without you, and you will be better off dead. We don’t blame someone with a physical disease when their body is ravaged, but we will not hesitate to comment when someone’s mind is ravaged enough to quit fighting the disease. Do you see the problem with the general public’s thinking here?
So how do we shift our culture? How do we combat depression as a public health issue? Honestly, I don’t know how to do that systemically. I do know how to begin locally: be kind, be present.
God created us as social beings; we were made for connection to each other. We can’t screen for depression and suicidal thoughts like we can for colon cancer and high blood pressure, but we can maintain connections with other people. If you’d like to prevent depression and suicide as issues in your own mental health, plug in somewhere. Find a group of people you can relate to and start relating. Find at least one person that you can share anything with and not fear judgment.
If you already have those connections, good job. You have one more job, though – go out and make connections and be a friend for those who are struggling to connect. How can you recognize someone struggling to connect? You probably can’t. You should just assume everyone is in need of a friend. That’s the gig if you want to be a decent human.
Once you start connecting well, you should start to recognize when someone you know is acting differently. It doesn’t always mean mental instability, but it might be the only visible sign of trouble. We humans don’t like to admit our weaknesses to each other. I am in no way saying that you are responsible for preventing suicide in your network of connections and that you should be on constant alert for tiny shifts in behavior among your loved ones. Just as someone with cancer must be responsible for adhering to a treatment program, someone with depression must be responsible for getting treatment and following their prescribed protocols.
But we are all responsible to each other as the body of Christ to care for our wounded and ill. We are called to support each other if we are to thrive. Suicide is preventable, and we can all do our part to lift one another up.
Here are some general resources for more information about suicide prevention: