Robin Williams was the latest Hollywood casualty to depression and suicide. Rather than pry into the why’s and how’s about this particular tragedy, can we not learn from it to help the millions suffering in silence from depression and addiction?

Humans have the propensity to judge others, and the social media age only feeds the frenzy.  What exactly are we accomplishing by digging deeply into another individual’s pain?  Who are we to say what we know of their situation? Even if some of us have dealt with these issues, each of our lives is so different that there really aren’t any  answers to the most tragic of situations, and they certainly can’t bring Mr. Williams back.

Mr. Williams’ mental illness “was what it was” – a tragic and serious mental illness and addiction. No doubt his illness was complicated by other factors so painful that his brain felt compelled to self-destruct.

To judge a person’s situation without knowing them or having lived in their shoes is something humans tend to do. Our egos may drive us to put down others in order to avoid our own insecurities. Perhaps the ego just wants us to judge to feel superior, but in the end, judgement proves nothing.

It’s hard to explain to someone who has no clue. It’s a daily struggle being in pain or being sick on the inside while you look fine on the outside.

Please share this message… if you, or someone you know has an invisible illness… NEVER JUDGE WHAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. (source: Heart 107.3)

As for Mr. Williams, I feel a deep sorrow for someone whose brain could no longer manage the pain and find joy. I’ve known many who have dealt with what Winston Churchill called “The Black Dog,” — a suicidal college boyfriend, relatives bitter about their lives, a college co-ed, a rape victim, a successful and dissatisfied professional, domestic abuse victims… Each has struggled, some having emotionally given up on life, while others are determined to get well.  Each of their stories varies, and the path to their wellness depends on their personal determination, medical assistance, social situation, and genetics. Again, who am I to judge as to whether or not “they’re trying hard enough” if I haven’t lived in their shoes?

Pain… Depression… Angst… Melancholy

They are all words used to describe varying levels of emotional and mental pain affecting many people. Mental illness isn’t an ethereal weakness of the human mind — it’s a genuine medical condition of the brain. Consider some of these statistics, as gathered by NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness):

  • 1 in 4 adults experiences mental illness in a given year
  • Approximately 20% of youth ages 13-18 experience mental illness in a given year
  • 6.7% of American adults live with major depression – that’s over 14 million people
  • About 9.2 million American adults experience mental illness and addiction
  • Approximately 18.1% of American adults have an anxiety order – e.g., generalized anxiety, PTSD, OCD, phobias, and panic disorders

What is the Solution?

The human body and condition is so complex that what may work for one person as a treatment may not work for another. We still need to get to the root causes for so many rather than simply trying to find ways to alleviate symptoms. I don’t think we’re there yet.

After years of living with “The Black Dog,” I don’t think any factor can be identified as the singular cause. I suspect each case will differ. Genetic predisposition, trauma, chronic stress, illness, diet, insomnia, chronic pain – what else is there? What may have “tripped” one person into depression may not for another.

The good news is, more information is getting out into the community about the importance of a holistic approach. It took me years to find answers for myself. My life changed when I finally found an internist with a Ph.D in neuroscience who suggested I try a number of modalities in addition to the medical therapies she employed (*note – no drugs). Miracle of miracles, it worked.

Will the approach I took work for everyone? No. My opinion about medications is mixed. There are some people who are in critical need of medication to avoid life-threatening situations. However, to not share information about other methods that can work in conjunction with therapy, medical intervention, and/or medications would be a disservice to people trying to find the right combination that works for them.

What Can YOU Do?

For yourself:

  • Rather than ruminating over the endless media coverage, be proactiveTurn off the television and social media, and especially refrain from using them late at night.  Studies show that extended exposure to television and media can influence depression, and not just because of the content. Refer to the Psych Central link below regarding the effects of screen time on the brain.
  • If you feel you are a danger to yourself or others, dial 911 and share this information with the operator.
  • Not sure about 911? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at  1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Ditch the shame. It’s time we all acknowledge that the brain’s malfunctioning is like any other organ. You would get help for a faulty heart or kidney, so be kind and get help for your brain. There are many methods to heal the brain, and it may take a combination of them to help you get well.
  • Find a good therapist. As I mentioned in my article about PTSD, finding a therapist you can work with is key.  There are many types of counseling therapy out there. See what fits for you. Make sure you share your entire history with the therapist so they can help you appropriately address your situation.
  • Get a good doctor.  Medical conditions and nutritional issues can mimic or intensify mood disorders. Examples of medical influences include (but are not limited to) Vitamin D deficiency, Vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism, and heart conditions.
  • If you choose to take medication, find a good psychiatrist. These medical doctors specialize in brain functioning, so it’s crucial you find a psychiatrist to help you find the best medicine for your body.
  • Exercise – it stimulates the production of serotonin, the “feel good hormone” in your body. Dreading the idea of moving? Simply take a 15 minute walk, and slowly move to 30 minutes a day. Find a walking partner to help keep you accountable.
  • Meditate. Mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong have been shown to relieve depression and anxiety symptoms. Research local yoga studios and martial arts organizations to see if they offer meditative practices.
  • Get out – don’t shut yourself in. You may feel like staying in, but doing so isolates you and can intensify depression.  Take a walk outdoors, get some sun, and ask friends to make you accountable for getting out and about with others.

For others:

  • Look for clues to changes in your loved one’s moods and behaviors.  Are they more reclusive?  Have you noticed changes in their eating or sleeping patterns?  Have they stopped doing hobbies and past times they used to enjoy?
  • If you see behaviors that make your friend or loved one a danger to themselves or others, call 911.
  • If you need additional guidance for someone you suspect may be suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • For additional ways to help, refer to 10 Ways to Help Someone Who is Depressed.

References and Further Reading

National Suicide Prevention Hotline. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ Accessed 14 August 2014.

“Depression: Major Depressive Disorder.” Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/basics/definition/con-20032977 Accessed 13 August 2014.

“What is Depression?” National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml Accessed 13 August 2014.

“Major Depressive Episode Symptoms.” Psych-Central.com. http://psychcentral.com/disorders/major-depressive-episode-symptoms/ Accessed 13 August 2014.

“Mental Illness Facts & Numbers” National Alliance on Mental Illness. http://www.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf Accessed 13 August 2014.

“What is Depression?” National Alliance on Mental Illness. http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=depression Accessed 13 August 2014.

Ambardar, Sheenie, MD. “10 Ways to Improve Depression and Anxiety without Meds.” 29 May 2012. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sheenie-ambardar-md/emotional-health_b_1542521.html Accessed 14 August 2014.

Aubrey, Allison. “Mindfulness Meditation Can Help Relieve Anxiety And Depression.” 7 January 2014. NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/01/07/260470831/mindfulness-meditation-can-help-relieve-anxiety-and-depression Accessed 14 August 2014. 

Haiken, Melanie. “10 Biggest Depression Triggers, and How to Turn Them Off.” 16 May 2014. Caring.com http://www.caring.com/articles/10-depression-triggers Accessed 13 August 2014.

Primack BA1, Swanier BGeorgiopoulos AMLand SRFine MJ. “Association between media use in adolescence and depression in young adulthood: a longitudinal study.” February 2009. US National Library of Medicine /National Institutes of Health. Accessed 14 August 2014.

Smith, Melinda, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. “Dealing with Depression.” April 2014. Help Guide. http://www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_tips.htm Accessed 14 August 2014. 

Keep the TV or Computer on At Night? You’re at Greater Risk for Depression.” 2009. Psych Central. http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/07/24/keep-the-tv-or-computer-on-at-night-youre-at-greater-risk-for-depression/42184.html Accessed 14 August 2014.

“10 Ways to Help Someone Who’s Depressed.” 2010. National Institute of Mental Health. Psych Central. http://psychcentral.com/lib/10-ways-to-help-someone-whos-depressed/0004979 Accessed 14 August 2014.