It takes a tragic (and preventable) death such as this to help us all realise that depression can and does strike at random. Depression is not about being happy or sad. It is not about being pleased or annoyed, amused or bored, fulfilled or malcontent. It is an illness. It can happen to anyone, at any time, even when they are supposed to be happy.
Hiding depression away, putting on a smile, a brave face, makes life more pleasant for the rest of us. But the consequences for the sufferer can be acute. So here is three things that we can (all) do:
1. Conscious that they don't want to "bring everyone else down", a person with depression may start to hide away. Their illness may be preventing them from getting in touch or socialising at all. If you have not heard from your friend, your sister, your neighbour, in a while - send them a text or write them a quick email, asking "How are you?" "I've been thinking of you".
2. A person with depression may start to think about suicide. It's a commonly-held assumption that asking about their suicidal thoughts or plans may only encourage that person in ending their life. This is a myth, as I learnt on my recent Mental Health First Aid course. Talking about suicide does not increase suicide risk - so ask the question. It's the hardest question you may ever have to ask a loved one, but it might just help. Many years ago, when I was struggling with one of my first (and scariest) depressive episodes, alone in a new city and away from my family, my dad asked me directly over the phone: "Kathryn, are you thinking about taking your own life?". I couldn't speak, but yet the love and support that flowed down the telephone line and into my ear was enough to keep me safe that day. So I repeat: ask the question.
(Ps This is not the same as the media covering explicit details about a person's death. Some of the coverage on Robin Williams has been outrageous and, frankly, quite dangerous.)
3. Stop perpetuating ridiculous ideas about what can or can't "cure" depression (and other mental illnesses, while we are at it). There is an industry out there (lifestyle gurus, some religious preachers, health and fitness companies, etc etc) who all think they can give you The Cure. Managing depression is about finding the right treatments for the specific case: it may involve pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, some alternative therapies... But it is unlikely (in my view) that "finding joy", praying, eating or avoiding certain foods, will cure you. Joy, prayer, fresh air, healthy food and exercise are all wonderful things in themselves (and I know being a mum of a lively toddler is a fantastic protective factor for me and my depression). But they are not cures. Presenting them as such places a burden of guilt on the sufferer, that they are not trying hard enough to be happy. That if only they changed this or that they would be better. Someone recently tweeted me that "self belief" could have helped rid me of psychosis. It was well-intentioned, but hugely misguided. I had no idea who or what I was - let alone a sense of self-belief! So let's all stop with the cod psychology, the remedies and the old wives tales and recognise that depression is as much deserving of medical and therapeutic treatment as any other illness.
- Robin Williams, 1951-2014