The acting world has lost a legendary performer, a gifted comedian and dramatic actor. And according to early reports, it appears that Robin Williams’ death was the result of suicide. He had been open about his experiences with depression in the past, and that takes courage. Mental illness, and maybe depression in particular, is still stigmatized and misunderstood. (Buzzfeed has this great list of 21 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Depressed that just might help.) I’ve seen it in many of the social media responses to his death. So I feel the need to clear up a few things here, since I have quite a bit of experience from which to draw. I am living with depression myself, and I grew up as a member of a family in which depression and attempts at suicide shadow many of my childhood memories. I know a thing or two about what depression is, and what it isn’t.
Allow me to paraphrase a little of what I’ve read and heard since the news broke. Some of the people I follow on social media have expressed surprise and disappointment that someone with so much wealth and opportunity would throw it all away. “With his fame and his money, he could have done anything he wanted. You’d think that would be enough to make him happy.” Others have been indignant that he would “selfishly” abandon his family. “Robin Williams had a wife and kids and he was in good health. There are people out there with cancer who would give anything for one more day, but he chose to kill himself.” A few Christians I’ve read have gone straight to his obvious need for Jesus. “I just wish Robin Williams had known that the joy of the Lord is our strength!” Some reflected on what they perceived as his weakness. “It takes a lot of strength to fight the darkness when life gets hard. It’s so sad Robin Williams couldn’t fight it.” And others believed that he was lacking in love. “All the drugs in the world can’t fix depression. Make sure to tell the people in your life how much you love them. It could save their lives.”
But here’s the thing — depression is not weakness. Depression is not selfishness. Depression is not lack of faith in God. Depression is not the absence of love (though it can make love harder to believe). Depression affects people whether they are rich or poor, famous or unknown, young or old, surrounded by family and friends or totally alone. It doesn’t go away because someone tells you they love you, or makes you laugh, or expresses their belief that being depressed is sinful, or gives you a list of all the reasons you should be happy. In fact, some of those only make things worse. I speak from experience when I say that depression often makes you feel like you’re a terrible person anyway, so hearing some of these things from the people you love can set off a chain reaction in the mind of someone with depression. “What is wrong with me? I should be happy. God must be so disappointed in me for not being grateful enough for my blessings. There are other people who have it a lot worse than me. I’m making the people around me miserable.” And so it goes, in a downward spiral. Even worse, where someone with a healthy brain might realize that this is a temporary downturn, the person with depression can’t see any hope of things getting better, ever. It feels very much like life will always be this bad, that you are trapped in a situation that has no possibility of improving and you are utterly powerless.
Depression is a disease. I have it. I don’t know all the reasons why. Some of it is genetic, I have no doubt. Some of it is probably made worse by the sad situations I encounter being a hospital chaplain, which was (mostly) my choice, and the loneliness of being unmarried and without children at the age of 37, which was definitely not my choice. There have been mornings when I didn’t want to get out of bed, times when I could see no good in my life, moments when I was absolutely convinced that the world and everyone in it would be better off if I were dead. I don’t understand why some of us are plagued with those thoughts, and why some end up committing suicide and some don’t. What I do know is that I’m not crazy, and I’m not “too emotional,” and I’m not weaker or somehow inferior to people who have never had to deal with depression. That’s probably hard to understand for some. I get that.
I’m going to make an overly simplistic comparison now; it’s the only way I can think of to explain it to those who don’t understand. For whatever reason, my brain has trouble processing happiness in much the same way that a diabetic’s body has trouble processing sugar. And just like with multiple sclerosis or lupus or other diseases, life circumstances can trigger a worsening of symptoms, even though they are not the cause. There is no more shame to having depression than there is to having any chronic illness. But when we talk about it as weakness, as a failure of character or a lack of faith, then people who suffer from depression are driven into the shadows, afraid to seek help, trying in vain to “buck up” on their own, and a potentially fatal disease goes untreated. That has to stop. We have to talk about this, bring it out of the shadows of shame and into the light. The light is healing, the light is truth, the light is God. One of my favorite Bible verses is John 1:5, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Depression sometimes makes it very hard to believe that, but I say it to myself anyway. Some things are true whether you believe them or not.
But speaking words of truth is not enough to banish depression. I was once sent to see a biblical counselor for my depression years ago, and his treatment involved having me repeat over and over again, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” emphasizing a different word each time. No matter how emphatically I said it or how many times, I didn’t feel any better, and I wondered what I was doing wrong. Thank God I eventually found people who knew how to treat this illness. Scripture and prayer are an important part of my faith, and so they are part of my healing. But if I stopped there in treating depression, it could be as disastrous as stopping there in the treatment of cancer. There are doctors and counselors and therapists to whom God has given healing gifts, and I make use of them. I am on a daily dose of antidepressant medication. I have a trusted pastoral counselor whom I see regularly to help process stressful events and learn coping strategies to combat all the negativity my brain throws at me. I have a dog who depends on me and loves me unconditionally. I am part of a church that gives me a place to learn and worship and serve, and a place to cry when I need it. I have a job that, though sad and stressful at times, is also incredibly rewarding. I have friends who ease my loneliness, who bring me joy and who are honest enough to tell me when they notice my depression and how it would affect them if I weren’t here anymore. I ride my bike. I walk on the nearest beach. I meditate. I pray. I do yoga. I write. All these things are working for me right now, and I am grateful to find myself in a sort of remission.
It takes time and effort to find what works, and everyone is different. If someone in your life is suffering from depression, encourage them to find what works for them. Don’t judge them. Don’t belittle their illness by making it sound easy to “snap out of it.” It can be hard to walk with someone you love as they go through depression, but please try. And if you’re reading this as someone struggling with depression yourself, just know that you aren’t alone and you don’t have to be ashamed. You are loved. You are strong. Don’t believe any lies to the contrary, whether they are coming from inside you or from people around you. There are treatments for this disease. Things can get better, a lot better. I know how real the darkness is, but I also know that the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Please take a step, even a tiny one, toward the light.
IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS IN CRISIS OR IN NEED OF IMMEDIATE HELP, CALL The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free hotline available 24 hours a day to anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.