Suicide and depression: Can we snap out of snap judgements?

Updated August 17, 2014

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Do I blame Williams for ending his life? No, and how could I, knowing how crippling this condition can be? - File photo
Do I blame Williams for ending his life? No, and how could I, knowing how crippling this condition can be? - File photo

The recent and very tragic death of Robin Williams set off the same spate of reactions which the living have traditionally been able to cough up to suicide incidents..

On the one end, people expressed horror, blame and perhaps even a little vilification for committing the act of suicide. On the other end, it was romanticised, and viewed as his path to attaining peace or freedom.

The truth is, neither reaction comes close to grasping the reality of an act as grave as ending one's own life, and the debilitating conditions that so often lead to it.

Suicide is really the last and final resort for when a person feels that all hope has run out. When news of Williams' death broke and a flood of across-the-globe opinions analysed his death (offering plausible explanations and expressing bewilderment as to “how he could have done it”, especially since he seemed to have it all), I couldn't help but feel: every one of these reactions is missing the point.

The point is: depression is real, and it can be deadly to the people it possesses. The issue is: how long before the rest of us accept it as a biological disease with real consequences?

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In the case of Williams, most of what a distant fan like me can say is that he lost hope and saw no other way. Do I blame him for it? No, and how could I, knowing how crippling this condition can be? Do I believe he has attained 'peace'? Again, no, because that's a completely pointless argument. I believe he ended his life hoping that he would find the said peace, but I also believe that life is intended to be valued and protected; it’s just that sometimes a person’s mental health doesn’t allow him to protect himself.

It may have seemed to outsiders that Robin Williams had all anyone could ask for, but he didn’t; he suffered from a serious mental health condition, which was very real and all encompassing.

Most individuals, even with severe mental disorders, seek help and reach out, looking for reasons to live and glimmers of hope before actually committing or attempting to commit suicide. These cries for help are sometimes obvious and visible, while more guarded and discreet in other cases.

The disturbing thing is, most of us don’t recognise cries for help – not because we don’t care, but because we don’t know. Suicides are commonly followed with “I don’t understand how he/she could have done it” statements, and nothing could be more true than that. We just don’t understand.

We lack the basic understanding of mental illness and warning signs and symptoms of suicidal situations – and that is what we as a society need to rectify.

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Renowned writer William Styron accurately and poignantly described his severe depression as feeling “numbly unresponsive for months”; experiencing “a merciless daily drumming”; suffering “exhaustion combined with sleeplessness as a rare torture” and believing that “all sense of hope had vanished”.

Styron's sombre, agonizing language highlights the symptoms of severe depression. It is marked by a feeling of emptiness, loss of interest, disturbances in sleep, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, loss of ability to concentrate or think and suicidal thoughts.

One does not have to experience all these things to be categorised as depressed, people suffer to varying degrees. But in its most severe form, most of these symptoms will be present; suicidal tendencies are predominantly present and day-to-day functioning is significantly reduced and/or impaired.

Depression is an incapacitating disease. I call it a disease because it is neurologically based and has its roots in chemical imbalances within the brain. It’s also linked to genetic predispositions, and lastly it may be brought on by adverse life events or stressors. I cannot stress it enough that contrary to what many people think, a person cannot just snap out of a severe bout of depression!

Across the world but particularly in Pakistan, the term 'depression' keeps being thrown around loosely:

“Oh he’s just depressed because he lost his job”
“Come on, stop being so depressed about a cricket game, big deal”
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you – just snap out of it”
“Come on stop being such a downer”

The natural result of all this is the belittling of a very serious condition. The real takeaway from the suicide of Robin Williams and all the ensuing discussion is that it is in fact us – the society – who need to 'snap out' of these condescending judgements, which merely serve to tell the patient that he/she is being being rejected for their condition.

At the same time, the trend of hiding any kind of mental illness for fear of stigma, must go. All of these responses only act to increase a depressed person’s sense of isolation and loneliness, worsening his state even more.

According to World Health Organization, 350 million people of all ages across the world suffer or suffered from depression. Besides Robin Williams, Heath Ledger, Kurt Cobain and Ernest Hemingway are other famous people known to have suffered from it. Celebrities seem to struggle with mental illnesses and mood disorders in particular – Ashley Judd, Owen Wilson, Catherina Zeta Jones and Winona Ryder to name a few.

All these people have it all – fame, money, success and worldly comfort – then why are they depressed? Because depression is indiscriminate, just like cancer is. It is a real disease.

Let’s open our eyes to it.