The media is buzzing with commentary and opinion on Robin Williams’ suicide some of it fairly shocking. “Williams was selfish,” “What a stupid thing to do,” “Didn’t he know how much people loved him?”
People who haven’t experienced clinical depression can have no idea what depression is like. When it’s bad it’s a life sentence in an underground cell with no door or window. When depression is just ticking over you know that life is a sea of endless pain and loss and sorrow and that whilst there are little shallow islands of not-misery you know that continuing to live means having to continue swimming through pain and loss and sorrow.
Williams suffered bipolar disorder and had a long relationship with addiction. Other people have suffered bereavements, traumas, illnesses and disappointments that they just can’t recover from. Some people go through the world with one less layer of protective psychological skin than other people, that’s just the way they’re made. Anti-depressants can definitely help some people and other people are not helped by them. The same can be said for therapy: drugs and therapy can work well to begin with and then their efficacy wears off.
Imagine having an illness that isn’t visible, that can’t be seen on an x-ray or CAT scan or be identified in a blood sample. You can understand feeling miserable if you’re made redundant or a relationship ends or someone close to you dies but when those feelings spiral downward into depression that’s less easy to understand. You’ve read about exercise and diet being really good for depression, so why can’t they come out for a run or even a walk for goodness sake? Why can’t they just eat better?
Being around someone who is depressed can be tough. It’s difficult to understand why a depressed person just can’t clear their head, take a deep breath and see that life isn’t so awful – there is sunlight and beauty, joy and pleasure in the world there for the taking. What makes it particularly difficult is that to a great extent this is true, it’s just that for someone who is depressed it’s not. People who don’t have depression can aim to leave this painful place they’ve found themselves in, people with depression can do all the exercise and healthy eating and find god and all the rest of it, and some of it may help but for a significant number it won’t make much of a difference.
You might be surprised to know how many people seem completely fine but think about death every day.
Therapists have a duty to break confidentiality when someone discloses that they are acutely suicidal. That means that if someone says, “Thanks Clare, it’s been great but this is our last session. I’ll be killing myself later today,” or “I’ve taken an overdose,” I am obliged to call the clients GP and possibly an ambulance. That seems sensible to me. And there are some people who have become exhausted from trying to keep their head above the sea of misery. They’ve taken the drugs, had all the therapy, made the lifestyle changes, love their family and friends, feel guilty about the trauma they know they’ll leave behind them and the sheer weight of having to bear life is greater than everything else.
That’s what happens to a lot of people who get cancer, MS, Motor Neurone Disease, osteo- or rheumatoid arthritis or any other chronic condition. Many of us can understand why some of those people make their way to Dignitas because we can see how their illness has reduced their enjoyment of life to nil. That’s what many people with chronic depression feel and not all the love, care or sense of duty can make a difference.
RIP Robin Williams
A link to helpful resources for people who are suicidal is on my homepage, including the Maytree Sanctuary for the Suicidal. If you want to commemorate Williams, consider donating to them.
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