As the summer is drawing to a close, I am reflecting back on my own personal experiences of the last few months as well as what happened in the landscape beyond. Heart-wrenching wars, rising new waves of terrorism, terrible and tragic signs that racism is alive and well in our own country. But perhaps because I am a psychologist, or simply one of millions of adoring fans, I keep going back to the suicide of Robin Williams.
To me, Robin Williams was a celebrity who felt like a friend, a dear friend, a beloved family member. I know that I am not alone in that. Maybe it was the "Helloooooo!" from Mrs. Doubtfire and every other line from that movie: his Porky Pig kiss off from his job -- "P-pp-pp-piss off Lou" -- or the sarcasm to his surly new boss at his subsequent menial job in the film mail room after he did piss off Lou and was fired from his voice-over job -- "Wait, first you pack them, then you ship them?" he mocks -- or the promise to his younger daughter that he wouldn't wish upon his ex-wife to have "amoebic dysentery," he'll try, really hard he says, smiling that genie smile. All of these lines have worked their way into our family's own jokes. Robin Williams' inside jokes, well, these he shared with all of us.
Meanwhile, he was suffering.
Robin Williams leaves us with a legacy of his work and a challenge. How do we help the millions of people who suffer from depression? Recent estimates suggest that at least one in 10 adults are suffering at any given time. Look around your world, at the faces of those around you and consider the human impact of that statistic. Yes, the pharmaceutical companies and psychologists have their charge to pursue, but we as individuals, as families, as friends, as work colleagues, as neighbors, it rests on our shoulders, too.
And we want to help. And we're afraid to. We're afraid of not knowing what to say. We're afraid of looking too closely into the deep and bottomless well of someone else's unhappiness, afraid of how those dark waters may beckon to us.
But we must be brave. Yes, we who are healthy must be very brave. To forbear that imagined possibility of losing our balance which we can easily right ourselves from, so that our friends and loved ones who can't know that they have our support.
How do we do this? How do we show our support? Turning to ideas from others, I came to this wonderful piece from my friend and colleague and courageous emotional deep sea diver, Therese Borchard, author of a powerful memoir, Beyond Blue, who regularly, strenuously and graciously swims like heck back up from the depths to the surface to share her findings with us. The piece she wrote following Robin Williams' death tells us just what we need to know about how to be there for someone with depression. These words really spoke to me:
I wish people would offer those who struggle with depression the same compassion they offer to friends with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer, or any other socially acceptable illness, that they'd question those discriminations and judgments reserved for disorders that fall under the umbrella of "mental illness."
I wish people knew that depression wasn't something that can be cured by participating in a 21-day meditation series with Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle on Oprah.com, and that although mindfulness efforts can certainly help, it's possible to have consistent, chronic death thoughts even after years of developing a meditation practice.
I wish people knew you could be grateful and depressed at the same time, that gratitude can coexist with a mood disorder.
I wish people knew that, despite impressive research on neuroplasticity and our brain's capability of changing, it is unfair to expect a person to undo depression by merely thinking happy thoughts, that the science is new and while a person can be mindful of forming new neural passageways, he can't change a lamp into an elephant overnight, just as he can't un-think a tumor from happening.
-- Therese Borchard, What I Wish People Knew About Depression, www.thereseborchard.com
Please click here to continue reading her thoughtful and inspiring piece.
Therese Borchard's piece is exactly what we need, an insider's field guide so that we -- who perhaps have dipped our toes in depression's waves or have gone in up to our knees and are afraid of slipping back in, or we don't know those waters at all and the fear of the unknown keeps us away, can see -- this is what depression is and isn't, and here's what you can do.
A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal tells us that what people with depression want is not to be talked at (especially to be told well-meaning but unhelpful advice that they likely have already tried and hasn't worked) but really to be listened to. What depressed people want is to be accepted, not questioned, and often just to be distracted and have a break from the clutches of what William Styron so aptly called -- darkness visible.
We can't see the darkness. We don't feel the clutches, but we need to take on faith that they are very much real for our loved ones who suffer from depression. We don't have to feel the same things or even understand them. But by trusting in the existence of that dark and murky reality, and leaning in to those who see it, perhaps we can offer a lifeline, a connection, a glimpse of another way that life can feel, that even temporarily those who suffer may just be able to grab hold of, or at least to know -- we are here -- saving their spot.
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2014 Previously published on Psychology Today
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.