Robin Williams’ suicide was met with the same instantaneous, shocking surge of emotional electricity succeeded by sorrow that follows the news of any sudden death -- whether it’s someone you knew personally or a celebrity you felt so connected to that they felt like family or a friend.
But the beloved comedian and actor’s death was also enshrouded in a cruel and bitter irony: that a man known for his joyous, spirit-filled personality and performances -- a person who embodied laughter -- was plagued by the demon of depression. A demon that ultimately drove him to take his own life.
My Facebook feed, like yours probably, lit up with fans of the great actor bemoaning his loss and posting reminders that depression is a disease that knows no human boundaries. Many of them posted resources to help deal with depression.
So, last night I tweeted the following: “Ironically, the face Robin Williams showed the world was a joyful one. Never underestimate the deception of depression & never EVER be ashamed”
That sentiment received hundreds of retweets, leading me to believe that the idea of depression being deceptive was resonant.
Depression does not discriminate. It isn’t always the person lying in bed with the lights out on a sunny Saturday afternoon (though, take it from me, that’s part of it). Depression has arms and legs and can silently destroy behind a smile. It can go untreated and guide someone to self-harm (or worse), or it can compel someone to reach out, seek help, recover and discover that the person they want to be again isn’t gone forever.
More than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. It’s a medical condition caused by a complicated combination of genetic, environmental, biological and social factors. No two cases are alike, and not every person with depression has every symptom or the same exact symptoms as the next person.
No personality type, ethnic group, nationality, or socio-economic group is spared from its effects. Your favorite celebrity, the prettiest girl in school, the funniest guy you know, the all-star athlete, the person in your life who looks like they're having fun and looks like they have their sh-- totally in order, your parents, your siblings -- no one is immune from the grip of depression. Depression does not discriminate based on looks, money, talent, or opportunity.
But for a disorder so prevalent that literally millions of people in the world suffer from its afflictions and symptoms, it’s still highly misunderstood. Depression is hard enough, but it’s even harder to deal with the common misconceptions that frequently envelop an overwhelming affliction. Below are some basic truths about depression that can, hopefully, make you feel less alone, or help you better understand a disease from which millions suffer -- and from which, with understanding, compassion, and treatment, you can recover.
1. Depression is a disease.
Depression is, in fact, a disease. Not to oversimplify the many causes, symptoms and effects of depression, but, broadly speaking, depression, like cancer, diabetes, or scleroderma, is a very real disease. Depression is a mental disorder that can also manifest itself in physical symptoms. (You know those "depression hurts" commercials? Yep.) Depression is an actual illness that often needs treatment. Just like someone with diabetes would likely (and hopefully) seek help for those symptoms, depression should be treated like a disease for which there’s help. Because there is.
2. You're not the only one feeling depressed.
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders and one that’s considered highly treatable. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2012 over 2 million American adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 suffered from depression. That’s over 9 percent of all American adolescents.
That same year an estimated 16 million adults 18 or older in the U.S. reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year. That’s over 6.9 percent of all U.S. adults. Or roughly the equivalent of the population of two Manhattans reporting feeling depressed. According to the WHO, more than 350 million people globally, of all ages suffer from depression, which is about the population of three Japans. (And those are just the people brave enough to admit they’ve suffered from this all-too-common illness.)
Which means you’re not alone.
3. It's not always easy to tell if someone is depressed.
It can be difficult to tell if someone is depressed. Someone who “seems” or “acts” happy may be silently suffering from depression. Never assume you know someone's struggle or that they're not struggling because they haven't outwardly said so.
4. Rich, popular, famous, or funny people can be depressed.
There is no blueprint for depression. It doesn't just look like one thing or person. Wealth, fame, number of Twitter followers, being a certain size, posting photos that look happy on Instagram, having the hottest guy in school think you’re hot, making it into your first pick college, never breaking out, being in a famous band, or having perfect hair does not make you immune from being depressed. You can be the life of the party, the funniest person in the room, or the person laughing the loudest and still be depressed inside. But there is no common face of depression besides a human face. Nobody is immune.
5. Depression isn't something you can just 'talk yourself out of.'
You can’t talk yourself out of tooth decay or strep throat. And you can’t talk yourself out of depression. There isn’t a specific class of people that does not include you who are just better or smarter when it comes to “logically” reasoning their way out of a clinical disease. You can, however, bravely say “I need a break, I need time to work on me,” and you can absolutely treat depression and recover.
6. You didn't do anything to deserve being depressed.
Sometimes traumatic events trigger depression, but some types of depression, like chronic depression can feel like it came on out of the blue for no reason. But no one deserves to be depressed, no one signs up for depression and it’s never, ever your fault. Everyone is significant, everyone deserves to live and everyone deserves help, no matter how “small” your problems may feel.
Seeking help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength.
7. There is nothing romantic about depression.
There is nothing romantic about a disease that sucks the joy out of life. While many celebrated artists and thinkers have suffered from depression, it’s also a disease that, like we’ve seen with the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, can claim lives if untreated.
8. You deserve help for depression.
“Part of feeling depressed is feeling like you don’t deserve help,” explained Dr Erin Hadley, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychologist and practices therapy in Philadelphia. “It’s common for people to say, ‘There are people who are way worse off than I am.’ It’s important to remember that feeling like you don’t deserve help or your problems aren’t important is part of the thinking pattern of depression.
"The thing keeping you from getting help is a symptom of depression. The most important part of being on this planet is feeling like you can connect to other people and living a life where you can wake up and feel excited about school work or friends. And if that’s not how you’re feeling you have the right to feel loved and like you can connect to other people."
9. You're not always going to feel depressed.
“Thinking things won’t get better is a symptom of depression. Not being able to see alternative ways of thinking about the world is a sign of depression,” Dr. Hadley explained. Despite how you may be feeling, depression is highly treatable. A combination of talk therapy and medication is found to be the most effective treatment. But there’s not a one-size-fits-all. “The most important thing to people who are depressed to hear is that they’re loved and they're not alone, and this is temporary and that things will get better.’”
If you or someone you know is dealing with depression, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.