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Listening to Depression and Suicide

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In recent days, many pundits and readers have been baffled by Robin Williams' suicide. Others have grappled with how to describe major depression, with which he had been diagnosed.

Still others have tried to put a positive spin on Williams' death by suggesting that he might be at peace now.

Those who have been reading my articles on mental illness, going back to my 2005 L.A. Times op-ed, "Shedding Stigma of the 'Psycho' Straitjacket," know that I often invoke Hamlet. The reason is because the Prince of Denmark, perhaps more than any other character ever written, has a sophisticated understanding of depression, psychosis and the suicidal mind.

As depressed, suicidal and psychotic as Hamlet may be, he chooses to live. As I pointed out in my last piece, Hamlet shows sublime wisdom when he recognizes that he "would rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of."

I could not agree more. All of us, including those who are severely depressed and psychotic, have free will. We all have the ability to change and improve our lives.

As readers know, I am a living example of that. I have come back from two psychotic breaks, two hospitalizations in psychiatric wards, deep suicidal ideation and a family history of suicide.

Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School, who wrote a thoughtful op-ed in the New York Times today, has recovered from her own "suicidal depression."

Jamison, who for decades has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and who wrote a memoir on the subject, An Unquiet Mind, pointed out that she subdued her suicidal ideation years ago partly due to the help she received from her psychiatrist who was both competent and empathetic.

Her psychiatrist diagnosed her illness correctly, got her on lithium, an often effective medication for someone with bipolar disorder, and provided her with good therapy.

I appreciated her piece. It is wonderful for readers to know that many of us have tamed our mental illness. As I have been pointing out for years, so many of us who suffer from mental illness function reasonably well and blend in to society.

While I have been heartened by the overwhelming compassion that people have shown for the late Robin Williams and his family, I have been a bit concerned by comments such as "I hope he is at peace now."

I too hope that Robin Williams is at peace. But as someone who was suicidal in the late 1990s and has had three suicides in his family, I am wary that people might think that there is something positive about suicide.

Let me be very clear: There is NOTHING positive or glorious about taking one's life! Suicide is a terribly destructive and devastating act, and it has repercussions that can last for generations.

It is sort of like the House of Atreus in the Greek tragedies. One tragic event in one lifetime can increase the likelihood of a tragic event occurring generations later.

If one believes in such things, one might also pay heed to the Bible, in which curses are sometimes said to be passed down "unto the third and the fourth generation."

This might all be dismissed as superstition, except for the fact that I have seen it in my own family, where, as I pointed out in my last piece, the suicide of my grandfather, after whom I was named in Hebrew, "traumatized my father, whom I love, and that in turn has affected his parenting of me."

This is not to say that suicide is a selfish act. But it is a short-sighted one. I know this because I was as deeply suicidal as anyone could be in the late 1990s.

I felt that fate and biology had conspired to curse me, that I was destined to commit suicide because my grandfather had taken his life within a few days of my birthday.

Yet I also had an instinct for survival.

As Edwin Shneidman, the late suicidologist, wrote in his book, The Suicidal Mind, roughly 90 percent of those who are suicidal are "ambivalent" about taking their lives.

I was one of them.

Thankfully, after two and one-half months of recuperation in 1997, I was able to tamp down my major depression and suicidal feelings. But it took time.

You need to be surrounded by people who care about you. You need to receive good therapy. And as Jamison points out, you need to be correctly diagnosed and medicated.

As for my own description of major depression, this is what I wrote in a piece five years ago:

If I had to compare that deep sense of hopelessness to anything, it would be to low tide at twilight. It is as if your brain is the shore, and it's getting very little nurture from the rays of light or the waves of water, which, like your neurotransmitters, are dormant, fading, near extinction. It's not midnight at low tide; there is still a glimmer of light on the horizon, though, as Bob Dylan once wrote, it's 'sinking like a ship.'

More recently, in a piece that was published several days before Robin Williams' suicide, I pointed out that major depression had been more life-threatening for me than psychosis.

As I wrote at the time, "Psychosis is like living a nightmare...Depression is like not living at all."

Yet it is critical for people to realize that they can come back from such depths and live a good life.

As painful as life can be, no one should ever commit suicide!

Without a doubt, suicidal feelings and depression need to be discussed more openly. I have been pointing this out for years. Men, who are four times more likely than women to commit suicide, in particular need to open up about these subjects.

But no one should be under the impression that suicide is okay. It may not be shameful or a sin, but suicide is the most destructive act that can occur to a person and a family. And we as a society must do our best to discourage and prevent it.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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