myths-depression-suicide

Given the recent tragic death of Robin Williams and the resulting surge in media attention, I thought I would bust a few myths about depression and suicide.

EDIT 13/08/14: Amended to capture some of the ugliness that the UK media vomited out this morning

1) “What did he have to be depressed about? He had everything!” / “Oh, that particular problem is why he had depression and killed himself, is it? That explains everything!”

Money does not buy good health. Close, loving relationships do not cure depression. The adoration of millions is not a NICE-approved treatment for any mental health problem, including addiction and mood disorders. 

Wealthy, loved and famous people still get ill. They have heart attacks, break their limbs and die of cancer. Why is it so shocking that they should also have mental health problems?

Conversely, debt does not cause depression. Addiction does not lead to violence. These things can contribute to someone’s illness, but depression is a disease. It is not a disease that has a linear relationship with a stressor: debt -> depression is not like smoking -> lung cancer. Because, if that was the case, having lots of money would cure depression. And we are now running in agonised circles like exhausted hamsters.

There is a public perception that mental health problems are somehow under a person’s control. Which leads me to…

2) “But everyone feels sad! He should’ve cheered himself up.”

Depression is a disease. It is not feeling a bit sad. Depression is to sadness what lung cancer is to the common cold. Depression and sadness may both have low mood as a feature, but that does not mean they are the same thing. Both lung cancer and asthma have cough as a symptom and they are nowhere near the same thing.

Telling people with depression to “cheer up” is the equivalent of telling someone with Parkinson’s Disease to just quit shaking. It is beyond rude and insensitive and into downright dangerous. The “pull yourself together” attitude contributes to public stigma, self-stigma and discrimination.

3) “Why didn’t he just get help?”

First off, we don’t know what help Robin Williams in particular did or didn’t have. I am not going to comment further on that.

However, as a wider issue, there are really two myths here: why didn’t he SEEK help and/or why didn’t that help stop his suicide? 

Seeking help is difficult. Stigma means that people with depression and other mental health problems are constantly told they do not have a problem, they’re making it up, they should “be strong” like everyone else and that medications are a crutch. This is bullshit. 

And, if people do reach out, what happens next? There is no magic wand in mental health. You do not seek help and transform into a healthy person overnight. Medication, therapy and support take time.

Depression is a potentially fatal disease. I believe the vast majority of people with depression can be helped to protect their lives from their illness, but it would be pure arrogance of professionals, relatives and concerned citizens to assume they can save everybody. Sometimes all the help in the world is not enough. And, like a cure for cancer, this is our mental health dream. Except we don’t get nearly as much money as cancer fighters.

4) “Comedians all have a dark side”

This is a version of the “creative people are all mad” bollocks that I frequently see quoted, often around Stephen Fry or the permananently wasted poets of the nineteenth century.

People with stable mental health are more productive than those with untreated illnesses. Mental health problems are neither a requisite nor an obstable to pursuing a career in the arts. If you are holding out on getting your disease treated because you’re worried about your art, think about the risk you’re taking with your life and weigh it up against the potential loss of creativity.

Because you can’t make great art if you’re dead.

5) “He should’ve been stronger! He should’ve fought harder!”

Like people with asthma should chuck out their inhalers and just learn to breathe like the rest of us?

Like people with diabetes should liberate themselves of their insulin and just will their blood sugars to normal levels?

Like people with cancer should just pull themselves together, think happy thoughts and eradicate those pesky cells from their body?

I know I keep going on about cancer but this is the level we need to think on if we’re going to talk about mental health problems. I want days, even weeks dedicated to mental health. I want national races given over to mental health research. I want an annual national televised programme to raise money for Mind and Rethink and the Samaritans.

Because that is how we combat myths about depression and suicide. That is how people stop suffering in silence.
That is how we give people the opportunity to survive depression instead of dying from it.

If you need help, please contact the Samaritans, your GP or someone you trust.

2 Comments

  • Huge amounts to add here. I won’t mention it all because, as usual, you’ve added clarity and thought to a foggy area. I’m as concerned as you by the feeble information the press is talking around. They really need to up their research, but I suppose everyone has that thought when the press get hold of anything they know about. (I know all my techie friends do!) Will you be doing a piece on bi-polar disorder next? It seems appropriate since Robin was diagnosed as bi-polar, and there is a huge amount of disinformation out there on this (not helped by Stephen Fry’s self-diagnosis.)

    Obviously I can not be certain, but my money would be on his bi-polar disorder being key in the tragic case of Robin Williams. Even though I think that they’ve probably oversimplified, I am happy that the public are trying to spread awareness and compassion for people suffering from depression. It may not be the perfect logic being used, but I won’t complain too loudly if the ultimate outcome is something reasonably positive. Maybe if people follow through all their tributes to Robin and the initial spread of this urge to make people more aware of depression…maybe, just maybe, it might develop into a national day? Or international day? A step in the right direction?

    • Bipolar affective disorder is on my list of conditions to cover. It’s heavily romanticised and thought essential to creativity, which leads to problems with management. It was bipolar I was thinking of when I mentioned “comedians have a dark side”, but more work is needed when I see Russell Brand talking about Williams’ “divine madness”.

      I think we need mental health awareness generally. Bipolar depression is not wildly different from unipolar depression and most of the comments are not specifically about depression but more ignorance of how mental health problems work at all.

      I would love a highly-published international day of recognition. But I think we’re a way off just yet.

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