I rarely use the word “depression” in my blog. I reference emotional struggles. I use words like “despondency” and “despair” and “darkness.” I avoid the word “depression,” because it is a word that can mean many different things, and for many people, it has a stigma that would get in the way of considering what I have to say.
Today, however, I am going to use the word. The past few days, the media and people on social media have been throwing the word around with as much sensitivity as if they were describing an unusual characteristic of the day’s weather. But depression is not about an unseasonably warm day, it’s about people.
Last night, I started crying out of reaction to something that didn’t warrant it. It didn’t take long for me to recognize my tears were about way more than what initially set them off. Among other things, I realized how much it had been affecting me to read and watch and hear about Robin Williams and his apparent suicide. Just the fact of it would be enough to upset me, as it probably would most people. For some of us it’s more personal than others. But beyond the fact of the situation was the nearly immediate and frenzied rise of people needing to air their thoughts and opinions on depression and suicide.
In the midst of all of this, I’d like to remind us all of a few things:
You don’t know Robin Williams. You may have enjoyed a few of his movies; you may be his biggest fan. But it’s highly unlikely you knew him. You don’t know what his life was like. Even if you knew everything about him from the moment he was born until the moment he passed away, you still wouldn’t know what life was like for him. Yes, it is incredibly sad he is gone, and I imagine deeply painful for those close to him. Honoring how you did know him–through his craft–seems appropriate. But remember he was also a person. A person you didn’t know. Even when someone close to you is struggling with depression, remember that you cannot truly know how they experience life.
If you have never experienced depression, you don’t know depression. I don’t know who had the bright idea to nickname depression the “common cold” of mental illness, but I think it gives a terrible connotation. They probably meant it to show that depression is numerically common, while other forms of mental illness are rare, or at least not as common. But likening depression to the “common cold” makes depression sound like a passing annoyance. It’s not. It’s a pervasive, persistent, suffocating condition. And it’s one you may not even be able to recognize in another person. If you have not experienced it, please don’t speak to it as though you know what it’s like, especially as if you know how to “fix” it. Because you don’t. If you want to learn, listen to the stories of those who live with it. While you cannot truly know the experience, listening will give you a wider understanding and hopefully a deeper compassion.
(See In which depression is not your fault by Sarah Bessey, an example of someone who does not personally know depression acting with compassion and advocating for those who do).
Even if you have experienced depression, you don’t know another person’s depression. Depression is the name given to a pattern of symptoms. Some people experience many of the symptoms in this pattern, some people experience only some of them, some people also experience symptoms outside of the pattern. There are also a multitude of factors that influence it and to varying degrees, from chemical imbalance to genetics to life events to seasons of the year. Suffice it to say, everyone who does experience depression experiences it differently. Further, the helpfulness of one approach or treatment can be very different from one person to the next. So, if you have experienced depression, be careful not to mold someone else’s story into your own by assuming they must feel the same way as you do or that the same strategies will be helpful to them. We absolutely need to share and hear one another’s stories; just be careful not to project.
(For one shared story, see Thoughts on depression, suicide, and being a Christian by Nish Weiseth)
Robin Williams was famous, and beloved for good reason. But there are millions of people that suffer from depression and tens of thousands that take their own life each year (and this is just in the United States). So before you take to the “airwaves” to talk about someone you didn’t know and a condition you might not know, remember that depression is probably affecting someone you do know and that your words have a powerful impact on them.