Learning from a tragedy

Like so many people around the world, I was saddened by the news that actor and comedian Robin Williams had taken his own life early this week.

I’m usually not one to get bent out of shape by celebrity deaths. After all, I didn’t actually KNOW him. But once I started thinking about it, I realized Williams was a pretty big part of my childhood. Aladdin, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji came out in a four-year span when I was between the ages of 5 and 9. They were all movies I watched over and over again at the time and still love today.

What struck me most about Williams’ death, however, wasn’t the fact that it happened, but how it happened. As many have said, it’s terribly sad that a man who spent the better part of four decades bringing joy, happiness and laughter to millions was unable to do so for himself.

Unfortunately, the disease that caused Williams so much suffering that he eventually decided the only way to relieve the pain was through death isn’t an uncommon one at all. According to the National Institutes of Health, in 2012, an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This represented 6.9 percent of all U.S. adults.

I’m far from being an expert on mental health and a psychologist I am not, but it’s something that has always interested me. What is perhaps the most troubling part of depression is how much it goes unreported. I’ve read before that it’s believed only 1 in 3 people affected seek help or even tell anyone there’s something wrong.

The problem with depression, anxiety, etc., is that they are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, thus have no outward warning signs. Many people who suffer are able to put on a “happy face” when they’re around others, never giving anyone reason for concern.

What bothers me is the fact people feel the need to hide it. As I said in the last paragraph, these types of diseases are physical and those who get them are unable to control it any more than someone with cancer or diabetes. Most people wouldn’t feel shame in having the latter two forms of illness, but that isn’t the case with problems affecting the brain.

According to the Center for Disease Control, 54 percent of people believe depression is a personal weakness. So many people believe that when they’re experiencing depression that they “just need to get over it” or “think positively.” Unfortunately it isn’t that easy. It’s these unreported and untreated cases that can so often end in tragedy.

There is a stigma surrounding those who suffer from clinical depression, et al., that they’re “crazy” or that they have some sort of control over their illness. It’s that lack of understanding that causes so many people to hide their pain for fear of what others might think.

It’s my hope that some good may come from Williams’ death. As the numbers of those affected grows, my hope is that the struggle of such a prominent figure will open up some dialogue and lead to a better understanding of what it means to have depression.

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