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The world has been left reeling following devastating news that Robin Williams had died at the age of 63 from an apparent suicide, following a long battle with severe depression.
I always hated the term ‘battle’ when it comes to fatal diseases like cancer and depression – the implication that the victim somehow ‘lost’ is dehumanizing and makes incredibly strong people seem weak.
Many people are shocked that someone as hilarious and charming as Robin Williams could be ‘battling’ such a dark illness.
Despite its high profile in the public arena, it seems that a large number of us are in denial or simply ignorant about just how pervasive an illness depression is or what ‘kind of people’ can suffer from it.
The short answer is: everyone.
Depression doesn’t discriminate between age, gender, race or religion. Rich or poor, old or young, comedian or CEO – all of us have the propensity to fall into that deep pit of despair that you feel you’ll never climb out of.
Depression, in various forms, has been classified as a mental disorder since 1952 by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be triggered by genetic vulnerability, stress, medications and medical issues.
Harvard Medical School released a report in 2011 that emphasized the complexity of an illness that affects 350 million sufferers worldwide and yet there is still a stigma attached to it like it’s something that can be switched on or off.
“Cheer up” is still used as a throwaway comment, as if depression is something that can be snapped out of.
Comedian and chat show host Jimmy Kimmel tweeted upon hearing of Robin’s death: “If you’re sad, please tell someone”.
Robin was as sweet a man as he was funny. If you're sad, please tell someone.
— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) August 11, 2014
While an admirable sentiment, it is also naïve. Of course, sufferers should confide in their loved ones, but this is only the first step in treating a ravenous, consuming and sometimes aggressive illness, for which there really isn’t a definitive, satisfying cure.
Let’s be clear - we’re not doctors or mental health experts here at Yahoo Lifestyle and these comments come from our own experience with depression.
But we feel it is important to give as much insight as possible into the experience of depression, so that people wise up and realise that the onus should not simply be on the victim, to break themselves out of a dangerous cycle that they may have no control over, on a chemical level.
Let’s not let this news bolster the dumb, pat cliche about “Tears of a clown”. Depression is an illness that strikes anywhere in society 1/2
— Dara Ó Briain (@daraobriain) August 12, 2014
Horrible to wake up to news of Robin Williams' suicide. Celebrity culture guarantees huge coverage. May it focus on depression as ILLNESS
— Alastair Campbell (@campbellclaret) August 12, 2014
A personal experience
Depression doesn’t just plant the idea that you are worthless into your mind, it allows it to grow roots until you are convincing yourself that you deserve to feel this bad.
You don’t know you’re depressed because you truly believe you are that fat/ugly/pathetic/stupid/unloveable, you’re just finally realizing it.
Crying yourself to sleep at night, drinking to alter your mood and clawing at your skin to feel something other than this all-consuming darkness become par for the course.
People telling you you’re wonderful and beautiful may as well be talking to the wall. You can hear what they were saying and you so want it to be true but you mind won’t let you believe them.
For this writer, the lightbulb moment was having a conversation with a colleague who had gone through the same thing – I had never made the connection between taking The Pill and my change in mood, outlook and mental health.
I was lucky. After coming off The Pill, I could feel my spirits lift. Things that would have got me down when I was medicated suddenly didn’t seem quite so awful once the depressed fog had dispersed.
But for those sufferers who need medication to stop the effect of depression, it can be a life-long struggle with little respite.
As we deal with the aftershock of losing one of the greatest comedians and bright lights of the world, there can still be the hope that this utter tragedy can help humanize a pervasive and devastating disease.
If you have been affected by this article please call Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 (UK) 1850 60 90 90 (ROI) or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch. Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year, for anyone who is struggling to cope.