In the days since Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself, the talk has been turned into a controversy about gun control. A Kansas City sportswriter made a comment that was repeated by Bob Costas, and it was the quote heard around the nation. In the wake of news, numerous bloggers and journalists used the story as a platform to talk about domestic violence. But I have yet to hear a conversation come out of the tragedy about recognizing or treating mental illness.
I recently moved back to Kansas City after living in California for 10 years. In Los Angeles, I was surprised to see how open people were about their mental health. People would bandy about the name of their therapist to total strangers at parties, as if they were recommending their favorite restaurant. Friends would debate which was better for anxiety: Ativan or Xanax. Or which one kept them out a funk: Celexa or Cymbalta.
At first, I was shocked by their readiness to admit they were seeing a shrink. Growing up in the Midwest, depression and mental illness were rarely discussed. When we would go visit my grandpa in the psych ward, my mom would tell me that "Grandpa is a little sad." If someone did have depression, there would be whispers that they had "nerve problems" and people would avoid them.
In hindsight, I exhibited obvious sides of depression. My mom would have to force me out of bed every morning, and all I wanted to do when I got home was go back to bed. My parents or teachers never encouraged to talk about it or seek treatment. As an adult, when I shared my concern about pronounced periods of sleep and body aches, my doctor referred me to a neurologist who found nothing wrong. When I told my gynecologist about regular crying jags, she wrote me a prescription for a different birth control pill. It was never suggested that I might have mental illness.
Eventually the dark cloud hanging over my head on a daily basis was unbearable. A few years ago in L.A. I was walking to work and crossed a bridge. I looked over the edge and thought to myself that if I jumped, I would die. At that moment I knew that I needed to get help.
At the end of my first visit with a psychiatrist, he looked me in the eye and said: "Listen to me very carefully. You have severe clinical depression and you will likely need to be on antidepressants for the rest of your life." It was actually a relief to know that finally, this was an identifiable problem with a long-term solution.
After a few weeks on medication, I started feeling better. It was easier to get out of bed and I could focus better on the articles I was writing. As cliché as it sounds, a fog had lifted. I also started seeing a therapist every week. I got excited when Friday rolled around and I made the trip from downtown L.A. to Pasadena. Talking to him felt like talking to a friend, but he taught me to identify and work through my feelings rather than suppressing them. I was finally able to share my deepest and darkest thoughts. I was surprised how easy it was, and that it wasn't scary or shameful.
Recently, I started seeing a doctor in Kansas City to continue my ongoing treatment. When I gave the receptionist my name, she gave me a weird look and gestured me to the waiting area. Later the doctor explained that seeing a psychiatrist is a very private matter and not something that people like to publicize, so I should just say, "I am here for a 1 o'clock with Dr. Smith." I shared the experience with a colleague, who encouraged me not to tell anyone that I have depression, as I would be judged or avoided.
So it seems things haven't changed much in the past 10 years. Many still don't understand that depression or other forms of mental illness are not something to be ashamed of. It's just like any other medical condition that requires treatment.
Earlier this year, a good friend of mine produced a four-part series on his PBS show about suicide. He found that we say someone "committed suicide" as if the person had "committed" a crime and that more accurate terminology would be to say that someone "died by suicide." Even the semantics of how we discuss suicide vilifies the victim as inherently bad.
I don't know if Belcher or anyone else that has taken their own life exhibited warning signs that could have clued in friends, family, coworkers or their doctors. But I do know that until we open up the conversation about treating mental illness and take away the shame that comes with it, to many suicide will still seem like the only way out of the pain that they are enduring.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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