Hiding behind depression's 'everything's all right' mask

It’s a shame that those who are suffering from depression have to grapple with the stigma surrounding this medical condition.

When I first heard about the death of Robin Williams, my first reaction was, “There must be some mistake.” I studied one of the early, somewhat vague news reports about his demise and expected an imminent announcement from his spokesperson to say that it was a different Robin Williams entirely. But that particular announcement never came.

When it was eventually revealed that he had taken his own life, I felt sad and my heart went out to him and his immediate family. I’m a big fan of Williams’ work. I loved his sitcom Mork & Mindy, televised in the early 1980s, and watched all of his movies. I also saw him doing stand-up comedy in New York – he was manic, brilliant and incredibly funny. No one could touch him.

It’s heart-breaking to lose anyone prematurely, but it’s also tragically ironic that Williams, an actor who brought so much joy to so many people, couldn’t be happy himself. I’ve personally known two people who committed suicide. And each time I was left asking myself, “Why? Why didn’t they say something? Why didn’t they ask for help?”

It’s been well documented that Williams suffered from depression. After all, he was open about it – that and his alcohol and drug addictions. But when it comes to mere mortals, people who don’t have an adoring public hanging onto their every word, such things are usually not discussed freely.

Celebrities can pop in and out of rehab, change their partners at the drop of a hat, go out dancing without their knickers on, and punch a photographer on the face, and such incidents usually blow over fairly quickly. It’s the same thing when it comes to mental illness; the inhabitants of Tinsel Town are often blasé about disclosing information about their depression and seeing a shrink.

My two friends who killed themselves never talked about their illness or how much they were suffering. Their parents knew, but the stigma associated with their condition prevented them from discussing it outside the comfort of their inner circle. 

More than two decades after I’d lost my second friend, another friend gave me an insight into how others might perceive depression, when she confessed to me that she had successfully battled the illness, after struggling with it for three years.

“Three years?” I said, in disbelief. “But you never said anything to me.”

“Other than my husband and my psychologist, no one knew.”

I felt a little hurt that she could have kept something so monumental from me. “I thought we were close,” I said, not making any effort to hide my disappointment.

“I just didn’t want you to think differently of me – that I was a bit of a loony. Or that you had to measure every word you uttered to me. Or that you pitied me. Pity would have killed me.”

A few years after this revelation, I understood exactly how she felt when I suffered from clinical depression myself. It took me by surprise, like an intruder creeping stealthily into my house under the cover of darkness. At first, I felt bleh. I put it down to overwork and the stress of my recent divorce. Then I began to feel as if a giant cloak had been placed on my shoulders – a cloak that was cold and heavy. I could feel the weight of it pressing down on me.

Dampness permeated my body. My thoughts became dark and bleak and the least little effort drained me. I wanted to lie in bed all day. I wanted to pull the quilt over my head and pray for the tiniest shard of light to pierce the darkness and give me some hope. I was hopeless. Everything was hopeless.

After losing a lot of weight, I was persuaded by a close friend to see a doctor, who diagnosed my illness. I felt ashamed. Surely this was a sign of my mental frailty, an inherent weakness on my part. But my doctor convinced me otherwise. Nonetheless, only three people were aware of my suffering: people I trusted to support and nurture me. That was a long time ago, but the stigma still lingers.

Clinical depression is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. It’s not a moral issue. No one thinks that someone with a disorder of the kidneys or the pancreas is lazy or weak-willed, so why should they think that of someone who suffers from depression? It’s time to stop the stigmatisation, so that people who are already suffering don’t feel the need to hide behind a mask to avoid rejection.

> There's more Mary Schneider at facebook.com/mary.schneider.writer or you can write her at star2@thestar.com.my.

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