So have you done the ALS Ice Bucket challenge? The videos I’ve watched are entertaining and attention-grabbing, which of course was the aim, and suddenly a little-talked-about disease is receiving the big focus and funding necessary for ramping up the research. A diagnosis of ALS is a death sentence, regardless of age or station in life, so a cure would be a godsend. The conversation is in full bloom around the country, as intended. We can’t really address things we have never faced, don’t know about, or are afraid to discuss.
Concurrent with the ALS wave, the death of a much-loved entertainer has sparked a dialogue on the realities of clinical depression and suicide, with far different results. The ugly, willfully ignorant comments on social media have been crushing. If a friend confided in you that he or she had received a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer and had only a short time to live, would your response be something like “Wow, dude, that sucks. But hey, quit whining. Chin up! Everybody has troubles. Keep a good attitude, get out and enjoy life, it’s bound to turn things around. You’ll feel better before you know it!” If you say yes, I call bullshit.
I’ve seen a few negative comments about the ALS challenge — it wastes water (give me a break — your twenty-minute showers and ice chests full of beer are all totally justified, I suppose); it’s stupid and juvenile (but painting your face and body for a sports event, or wearing a block of cheese on your head isn’t); I don’t see the point (of course you don’t, it’s under your hat). But the response has been predominantly positive and lighthearted, and it’s fun to watch.
The conversation about depression and suicide is an entirely different story. It’s a fact of life that our bodies get sick and die — it happens right in front of us so there’s no denying it. But you could talk and type all you want and way too many people will still never comprehend that our brains and psyches get sick, too. If you wouldn’t shame someone for having cancer or suffering a brain hemorrhage or getting hit by a drunk driver, why would you use shame as a tool against illnesses and injuries of the spirit? And who the hell are YOU to do that in the first place?
Here’s an actual example of the complete nonsense being posted:
“The fact still remains he (Robin Williams) killed himself because he made bad choices in his life … society is only making a big deal out of him because of who he was and his money. Wealth comes with challenges. Depression is one of them. … A person’s stature in society shouldn’t make them any more important than anyone else. … Seek out help. It is out there but you have to lose your pride to find that help. Don’t be a coward and take the easy way out. Listen to the voice inside you that tells you right from wrong. Don’t try to tune it out or you will be in for a rough time.”
What a steaming pile of panther whangy.* If you don’t know what you’re talking about you’d be smart to shut your pie hole. I’ve never been clinically depressed, I’ve just been hit with garden variety blues from time to time, but I’ve watched beloved family members suffer and die from it, so I’m here to tell you:
1) Clinical depression is not caused by “bad choices.”
2) The conversation is not really about Robin Williams, except that his life perfectly illustrates how deadly the disease is. He had it all, but money, wealth, and fame do not in any way make a person immune to a disease of the brain and spirit.
3) I haven’t seen anyone express the view that Mr. Williams was “more important than anyone else.” His high-profile death and the fact that he was loved by so many people have simply generated a national conversation that needed to take place.
4) “Losing your pride” has little bearing on seeking help. A person lost in the dark tunnel of clinically-depressive illness is mostly incapable of reaching out. I’ve been told by people who’ve been there and survived it that it’s hard to even hear other voices or entertain possible options — for them, they’re in the process of dying and it takes everything they’ve got just to hang on. Robin Williams DID seek help, and had been treated for depression for years, but just as with cancer, a “cure” was not easily come by. Complicating matters, anxiety and depression are clinical symptoms of Parkinson’s, which he was also dealing with.
5) Rather than being “cowardly” and “taking the easy way out,” a person in the throes of the illness finally succumbs to the relentless pain and suffering, concludes that the world would be far better off without him, and exercises the only option that seems to be left.
6) “Right from wrong.” What an incredibly judgmental thing to put on someone. If you’ve never been in that long dark tunnel, hating yourself for who you think you are and what you believe you’re doing to your loved ones by simply being you, then you need to SHUT UP.
7) “Don’t try to tune it out or you will be in for a rough time.” If people with clinical depression could “tune it out,” they’d do it in a heartbeat. And as for a “rough time,” it’s clear that you care very little about what they’re going through, so DO.PLEASE.SHUT.UP.
No one is immune to mental illness, so it would be in your best interest to stay off the soapbox. Many people are born with a genetic predisposition to any number of spiritual and mental illnesses, and all the arrogance and condescension in the world won’t change that — that attitude just lets people feel better about themselves because it didn’t happen to them.
If you’ve been spared from the disease of depression, why not adopt the approach of the ALS people and do something to help raise awareness. I just did.
*with appreciation to Philip Grecian