It’s glorious how for those first few days after some high-profile person commits suicide that depression and national help hotlines get back in the headlines, isn’t it?
Except it isn’t. It’s a Band-Aid, a weak offering of help to those who cannot, will not, and may not even realize they need to ask for help. While the world has made great strides in recognizing and acknowledging depression and other mental health issues as actual medical problems, it’s still not a daily thing we’re stressing.
During the winter–the height of flu season–my company lets us all know through its various communication platforms that coming to work sick isn’t good–for the worker, or for those around you. But why, during the rest of the year, is nothing communicated about seeking help if you’re struggling with a mental health issue?
CNN went wall-to-wall with coverage of Anthony Bourdain’s life and death. And on the screen the whole time was a graphic containing the toll-free number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Great! More power to them. But where’s the coverage or that number going to be tomorrow? Or Monday morning as people wake up after a lonely weekend?
Full disclosure: I suffer from depression and anxiety. I’ve been in and out of treatment for at least the past 12 years, and have pursued everything from counseling to group therapy to medical treatment. Honestly, I’ve hated every minute of it–the treatment, the feelings, the condition, the thoughts, how the meds make me feel, the guilt, trying to make sure that everyone I care about knows this isn’t because of them, or that they can’t do anything for me, and feeling like people are judging me (including my family) for having this condition and needing treatment for it.
And yes, in those thankfully very few truly horrible moments spent deep in my own head, there’s been that option looming: suicide will fix everything.
Fortunately, I can rationally think through it and recognize that it won’t actually fix anything. My family relies on me a lot, and while it’s sometimes annoying the extent to which they jokingly say they couldn’t function without me, I know that it’s said because they truly do appreciate what I do. I know I’m flawed and not perfect. I know that I screw up to varying degrees at varying times in a wide range of areas in what I do for them. And yet, they forgive me. They support me. They love me. They do care about me as a person and a provider. And ultimately, I know their pain would be as great as any I’m experiencing at those bleak moments. And I can’t do that to them. That’s my rationale. It ain’t perfect, but they all keep me strong.
A lot of people out there don’t have that, or don’t see that they do have it. That’s a huge part of the problem: depressed people isolate themselves a lot and in isolation, you can push people away both intentionally and unintentionally. And it can be compounded when the people being kept at a distance don’t know why. So there’s a struggle: telling those around you what’s wrong.
I realized in college that I had depression. I masked it through sarcasm and introversion. But the “real world” isn’t geared toward introverts. Or those with depression. I never told anyone what I had self-diagnosed. Hell, I never even sought treatment until I was in my 30s, and only then, it was because I really had to.
I looked on my official diagnosis and treatment as an admission of failure: that I knew there was a problem, and I couldn’t fix it myself. And it was hard to admit to my family that I suffered from depression and anxiety. Even harder was having to take a medication for a while to adjust my mood, because that was, to my thinking, the ultimate indignity: I couldn’t manage on my own simply by rationally thinking through it.
But the thought of telling anyone outside of that closed group of relatives was terrifying. They would think less of me because I had depression. I wouldn’t even dare mentioning anything of the kind to my coworkers because I see them every day. What would that do to our work relationship? And yet, I finally found the strength to first mention it and then talk about it more openly with them over the last year.
Whether or not society does it to those of us with mental illness, judgement is a huge deal. It’s been talked about often in my life even among family and friends as something not normal–I don’t blame anyone for that, it’s just what it is, and it’s what society has done forever–and I’ve even done it myself “all you have to do is…” or “just relax and get through it. Everyone has to do it. You’ll be fine.”
Depression and anxiety have come the the fore in the last 3 days because of high-profile deaths. In between those deaths was a report from the CDC talking about suicide rates going up in many states in this nation. And on a personal level, there’s been some struggle both for me and for members of my family. But things will return to “normal,” and it won’t be top-of-mind or headline grabbing for long. Until someone else with fame or position does this and we grieve the loss of a soul who impacted the world in some meaningful way. And there’s part of the problem: we try to treat a very personal disease with a public outpouring of support. It won’t work that way, not effectively, anyway.
It’s dawned on me recently that my depression and anxiety is just like my diabetes. It’s a condition I have to live with and manage every day. I’m trying to figure out some way to check-in with myself on a quantifiable basis, just like how I check my blood glucose once every day. I need to do a better job of watching my diet and controlling those numbers for my diabetes. And I need to not treat my depression and anxiety reactively by calling a therapist when I feel like I need that boost.
There will be bad days–just like those days when my blood glucose is inexplicably over 200 and I wonder why I even bother trying to eat healthy–I need to know that there will be days that I’m just going to feel hopeless, and that I need to ask those around me for a boost if I need it. Or at least just tell them, because more often than not, trying to unravel the knotted up thoughts in my head just is too complicated. They may not help, but knowing someone cares always helps lift me from that dark place. But at the same time, I need to celebrate those wins–those days when there’s no sign of that doubt or pain in my head–and share those too.
Just the thought of doing any of that makes me anxious, which is the very nature of my disease, so I won’t jump right into that immediately. But I will try to work to do that soon.
In the meantime, even if you don’t know what it means to feel depression like I do, or Kate Spade did, or Anthony Bourdain did, just let them know they’re important to you. Some day, maybe on that darkest day in their lives, that may be what makes them realize someone in their life cares and would really feel the pain of losing them.