Depression is an illness, not shameful

Robin Williams, who had wealth, fame and the respect of millions, committed suicide last week. His actions are another reminder that depression, mental illness and substance abuse can be found in the richest and most successful. It can be found in friends, in family. It can be found in self. His suicide was a reminder that we never really know the pain of others, and often do not understand the depth of our own pain.

Robin Williams suffered from severe clinical depression. It was not merely sadness. He was not being selfish as some suggested. He was taking what he perceived in his depressed state as the best way out for himself and his family. As a psychologist, I have heard this far too many times.

Certainly, most people who are depressed do not commit suicide; yet far too many do. Research shows that 90 percent of people who kill themselves are depressed, have another mental health issue, or have a history of substance abuse. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, especially among men.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, it has also been on the rise among teens.

Robin William’s death, as tragic as it was, could be a lesson for those who know little about mental health. The horror of his death has encouraged people to talk about suicide, and to know that it may be preventable by understanding what to do for friends, family and self.

If someone is seriously depressed, listen and do not judge. Do not dismiss his or her concerns by saying “cheer up” or “man up.” Do not say, “You’d feel better if you just do something.” Seriously depressed people would love to do something, they just can’t. What you should do is to encourage them to seek help immediately.

Most people reading this column do not live in Los Angeles or New York where mental health professionals are more prevalent than Baptist churches in the South. However, there are ways to get help regardless of where you live. Most primary care physicians can make a referral to a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Even many small towns have mental health clinics. Taking a loved one to the emergency room or calling 911 is an option.

A majority of people who attempt suicide have mentioned it several times before they act. Family members are often in denial and dismiss the threat as “attention seeking.” Additionally, vague threats such as “You’d be better off without me” or “You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” should be taken seriously. When people are suicidal, firearms and weapons should be kept away from them if possible.

As I’m writing this, I’m trying to channel Robin Williams. What would he like his legacy to be? I think he would like people to accept that depression is an illness, just like diabetes and hypertension. It is not shameful. It does not make you “less than.”

I spoke to someone at the National Suicide Hotline. He said that the number of calls has increased over the last week, and more people are seeking help. Robin would like that. Nanu Nanu.

The National Suicide Hotline, which operates 24-7, can be reached at 800-273-8255. Their volunteers direct the call to someone in the person’s local area who can provide immediate help.

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Nancy Ryburn is a clinical psychologist and a columnist for Stephens’ Media.