Invisible, long term and utterly devastating. Mental illness, in particular depression in its various forms, is still very much misunderstood. It’s 2 years since Robin Williams died. The news shocked and saddened me – I’ve been a life-long fan – but I shouldn’t have been surprised. No one is immune. Depression isn’t choosy about who it picks: actor, football player, rugby player, teacher, police, stay-at-home mum, politician – anyone can be struck down and at any stage of life. Some depression is situational. But for many depression comes often without reason or cause. Depression isn’t always ‘about’ something, it just ‘is’.
Some people found it hard to understand how someone privileged could take their own life. It’s an indication of the sheer desperation and desolation that many people with depression feel. Wealth, family, fame, none of it can insulate you from the impact. For many people with depression it’s the ultimate action of power against a foe which you have no control over, and no way of beating. Hopelessness leads many down the same path.
As someone who has completed Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), and spoken to people who have lost family members to depression, it is clear that the action is not cowardly or selfish, as many claim. The act of taking one’s own life may be a desperate one, but many people genuinely feel that their loved ones would be better off without them. Such is the feeling of worthlessness that this seems like a reasonable, logical option – the only option.
High profiles deaths like that of Robin Williams have done something to raise public awareness of depression, and that’s a good thing. Far more needs to be done however, so that this invisible and destructive illness doesn’t take as many lives, and ruin somany more. In 2014 (the most recent figures available) there were over 6500 recorded deaths from suicide. The highest suicide rate in the UK in 2014 was for men aged 45-49 at 26.5 per 100,000. Suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49 , eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. That’s a very scary statistic. There’s plenty of research into cancer and lots of preventative advice about heart disease but comparatively little research and advice on depression and suicide. It’s mainly left to charities like the Samaritans, Mind, and a host of smaller third sector organisations to raise awareness and provide advice and support. Given the statistics, that isn’t good enough. We have public campaigns on testicular cancer – an exclusively male killer- why not depression? Whilst it may be true that more women are diagnosed with depression, it is also true that more women than men seek help.
See Me Scotland have had high profile campaigns to end mental health stigma but there has been no equivalent in other parts of the UK. Isn’t it time we made a concerted effort to tackle this serious public health issue which is affecting men adversely?
In part it is a question of men feeling that they can’t talk to anyone and receiving negative responses when they do. Being told to ‘get over it’ is a common response to depression. Women may be more sympathetic in general, but it’s not really a ‘man thing’ to admit vulnerability, and being depressed is often seen as a weakness. We need to get across the message that depression is an illness. You wouldn’t tell someone to get over cancer or a broken leg, and no one with depression should be told to ‘get over it’ either.
Clearly this is a more complex issue than this brief piece can cover. I would urge you to find out more. Do the ASIST training so you can recognise the signs in friends, family or strangers. Find our more from the organisations mentioned here. Above all, be kind to your fellow human beings. You never know what struggles they are going through. Don’t assume because someone is a joker or the life and soul of the party that they are happy, that they are immune from depression. Robin Williams was a brilliant actor, had a fantastic sense of humour and what looked like a perfect life, but he also had depression – and it killed him.
I am running a 5k as part of the Loch Ness Marathon at the end of September in support of Support in Mind Scotland, a small charity providing support to people with mental illness and their families. If you feel you can donate something please go to my JustGiving Page. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Debbie-Mathews-Ruppenthal
Thank you for reading this.
Statistics courtesy of the Samaritans: