Since the recent deaths by suicide of a friend, a friend’s son, and a cherished colleague, I have been thinking often about depression, anxiety and the death sentence that comes too often with those conditions. Now, I know many people live with depression (including me and other loved ones) or anxiety and may not be in danger of death, but it remains a very real possibility. Suicide became real for me when a classmate’s brother died by suicide during his first year of high school. The common response fifty years ago was, “Someone would need to be crazy to take their own life.” That kind of talk is less prevalent today, and it casts an ugly shadow, but that statement could lead us to find the truth. The truth is that those who die by suicide are often dying from depression, a disorder of the brain. The morning after the most recent death in my own circle, I wrote in my journal, “Depression is a killer.” Statistically speaking, 800,00 suicides out of 350 million people worldwide with depression seems a very small number. But not to the friends and family of the 800,000. *
In my limited experience, depression doesn’t always kill, but it is a killer. My young friend, a woman of deep faith, was a beautiful, soulful, thoughtful and loving spouse and mother to three sweet young children. From outward appearances, she appeared to “have it all.” And then she died. My colleague had been in ministry for more than thirty years, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ among the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the mentally ill. Following his death by suicide, the tributes poured in: “Man, he brought me back from the brink of suicide.” I wonder how many people are alive today because he reached out to them in compassion, with a wealth of understanding about depression. I could continue, telling you stories about my college friend that his girlfriend and I thought we could keep alive by “watching” him; or the relative whose depression was so well hidden, no one knew how he died until two years after his death; or the precious son of a girlfriend, who died by suicide just days before his high school graduation, but you most likely have stories of your own.
Depression is one of those things that we cannot ignore. We must stop stigmatizing. In some cases, we must not give someone their privacy by avoiding raising the issue. As with many illnesses, depression appears in varying degrees. In some cases, it is controlled and treated by medication and talk therapy. In other cases, it is far more challenging and more debilitating than many of us can imagine. I recall being drawn to a couple of small children at our church, who loved hearing the stories I would tell on Sunday mornings. Most of the time, mom and dad were with them, but there were many times when dad was present for worship and other events with just the children. Where was mom? It turns out, she was in the hospital, trying a new treatment for her depression. In the hospital, staying safe. Her depression is severe. Her children are grown and living away from home yet stay in touch regularly. She is open about her illness and finds help and support among family, friends and her faith community.
I guess I’m writing this because it is on my mind and because I consider myself a good listener and a supporter of those with mental health concerns. BUT, I have missed the warning signs far too often and that scares me. It scares me for my loved ones and those I don’t even know. And it scares me to know that if I can be that insensitive when caring for others in my life’s work, then we all need to be more aware. Not just aware of others’ feelings, but aware of the symptoms and signs of depression and suicide. What can we do?
Until next time.
* Most of my information comes firsthand from those living with depression, but I have also found a great deal of valuable help on the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) websites.
Facts from the NIMH Website: Depression is divided into two categories on the NIMH website. The leading cause of disability for people aged 15-44 is major depressive disorder. More prevalent in women than men, it affects more than 15 million people in the United States. Three (3) million people struggle with what NIMH calls dysthymic disorder (prolonged chronic depression).
NAMI lumps the categories together and says that depression affects more than 350 million people of all ages globally. It is the number one cause of disability, and, get this, predicted to be the number one global burden of disease by 2030.At its worst it leads to suicide, which takes the lives of 800,000 people worldwide each year.