Robin Williams and my stepmother Karen never met, but they have one thing in common: They both were killed by depression. I say killed by depression and not "took their lives" because I truly believe that the depression is the root cause of their suicides. It's a story a family never looks for an opportunity to tell but one we should all tell more often. We can't afford for this disease to hide in the dark any longer...
When I received a call from my father on June 27, 2014 to tell me she had committed suicide I wasn't surprised with the "how" or even the "why," but I was surprised that she had finally succeeded. For the last 10 years, this was a constant battle with her and depression. She had tried it twice before to commit suicide unsuccessfully, and my father had tried to get her help with psychiatrists and medications, but every time she would start to feel better she would stop taking the medication. It was a constant battle and frustration for us all.
Shock and Anger
I don't know how Robin Williams' family felt, but I know my first feeling: shock. I was shocked that it was finally over, and the battle with depression had been lost. I didn't cry -- all I thought about was my father and my younger sister and how I could make things better for them. It was so odd in some respects because when people face death it seems like something that should evoke sadness, but all I felt was shock and a bit of anger.
Embarrassment and Grief
I hate to admit this even, but the first thing I thought about after I cleaned up and got my father to settle down was, "What do we tell people?" I mean I was truly embarrassed by the fact that someone in my family had taken their life. I thought about trying to keep it a family secret and to respond in vague messaging around the details of her death.
My father didn't care to do that, and he immediately wanted to share the details with people. For me it was hard; for him it seemed necessary and so he shared. As the calls and texts came in he told people what happened -- over, and over, and again. It made me nauseous to hear the story so many times. It also stoked the anger in me and feelings of resentment that she ran away from my sister who needed her mom all because she was selfish.
Action and Discovery
As night turned to day, I had more and more time to reflect. I began to think about the situation as a business problem that needed to be solved. My first thought was: How can we avoid those people my father had told this sad story to from sending us flowers. To me flowers are worthless -- sure they are pretty, but they live for a week and die. We had already dealt with a traumatic death; I didn't see the need to have more death in the house, even if they are just plants.
I began immediately searching on Charity Navigator for a highly-rated charity. They evaluate charities for proper use of funds, financial disclosures, and other important attributes you want to see when you are giving money to a cause. I found the highest rated one I could, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and set up a donation page in lieu of flowers.
We started with a $500 goal and soon eclipsed $4,000! It was amazing to see the love and people giving to a worthy cause. It felt like we were doing something that might not save her or now even someone like Robin Williams, but there are others who need help, and it felt the best way to remember her.
Understanding and Closure
The one thing I have realized through all of this is: Depression is a real disease, serious as cancer or heart attack. For some they fight for years trying to make sense of it, balance chemicals with medication, and go to counseling hoping to see the brighter side of life. Others like my stepmother and Robin Williams have already lost that fight.
The key to tackling depression is acknowledging it and not being afraid to let people know it's here, and people you know are suffering from it. I don't feel embarrassment anymore, I feel a purpose. I know that I can do something about it and instead of sitting around; I choose to make it visible to my friends, my family, and anyone else who might listen. We can't save those who have lost the battle, but we can tell their stories, look for trouble signs with our friends and family, and bring awareness, funding, and support in the fight against depression.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.