The struggle to cope with depression can be crippling. Sometimes it becomes unmanageable and people feel hopeless. Such feelings may have led to the reported tragic suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef and television host Anthony Bourdain.
As a psychotherapist for over two decades prior to becoming an author on coping with adversity as well as being a life and business coach, I worked with many clients struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. Personally, I lost a close friend to suicide years ago.
Causes for depression can range widely from biological disorders to stressful life situations such as finances, relationships and substance abuse. While depression is common, not all people struggling with severe depression consider suicide an option. They do share commonalities of losing the ability to regulate their emotions and behavior.
People wrestling with severe depression may experience symptoms such as changes in their mood, concentration, sleep, appetite and behavior. These changes impact on how they relate to others, both personally and professionally. They often withdraw, because their ability to participate in and receive enjoyment from life is lost. Their feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness eclipse realty. They can become overly critical of themselves and experience excessive guilt. Worst of all, depression can escalate to the point where they do not feel that they deserve to be helped. They push others away, punish themselves and take their own lives.
Families and loved ones are left behind, often painfully wondering how they missed the cues as to the seriousness of the depression. They are unaware that sometimes, suicidal intentions are expressed in subtle ways, unperceivable to others. For example, behaviors such as withdrawal from friends, family and previously enjoyed activities can be minimized. Putting one’s affairs in order can be seen as being responsible and organized. Giving away treasured belongings can be misinterpreted as generosity or change of interests. Increasing use of drugs and alcohol can be viewed as self-medicating. Sometimes pre-occupation with morbid thoughts are dismissed by others as attention seeking behavior. A sudden change of mood from depressed to happy, which occasionally occurs when a depressed person has decided to take his own life and is now at peace with himself, can be misinterpreted by family and loved ones as a sign that the depression has finally lifted.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It is preventable, yet unfortunately many people are not helped. The reasons are varied. Society places such a high focus on success, such as academic, financial, physical appearance or professional achievement, that people experience shame when they fail. Some may fear being judged by others as genetically flawed or lazy if they admit to the powerful feelings of depression. They worry about discrimination at work, being teased by loved ones, or ostracized by social groups.
Wanting to avoid what they perceive to be the high cost of speaking about their depression, they don’t speak up or seek professional help, and instead treat their depression as a very private matter, sometimes concluding in catastrophic consequences.
Depression is complex but common and treatable. Yet we continue to lose too many loved ones and good people to suicide. Therapy and medications can help those overwhelmed by depression sift through distorted thoughts and feelings that often add more stress to their lives. Removing the social stigma and stereotyping that creates barriers to people requesting the help they need and deserve can abate a vast amount of unnecessary suffering.
The CDC reports that over half the people who commit suicide had no known diagnosed mental health condition at the time of their death. Increasing our awareness of depression, and how it is an equal opportunity destroyer of all people, independent of race, socioeconomic status or gender, will make it more acceptable to openly and comfortably talk about one’s depression and seek professional help.
We must move forward with our awareness that depression is not an individual’s fault. We can start today by busting through myths, such as the belief that talking to a depressed individual about suicide will put the idea in their head, or that a person can ‘snap’ out of it, or that real men and little children don’t get depressed, and replacing them with facts that will save lives.
Social networks are often the first responders for those who are depressed, sharing non-judgmental concern and compassion as well as guidance and suggestions when sensing something amiss in others. But in order for our social networks to truly be the lifeline they are capable of being, we must learn to step outside our comfort zones and talk with others about depression before it becomes life threatening. We must normalize seeking help for depression. We can accomplish this by viewing the seeking of help for our mental health as socially acceptable as our medical health. When we succeed in removing the stigma of depression, people will discover healthier pathways in which to cope, and feel more hopeful for their future.