Robin Williams, the shockingly talented actor and comedian whose performances in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting inspired as many minds as his Mrs Doubtfire and stand-up routines delighted, has taken his own life. He had been “battling severe depression of late”, according to his media representative. Battling is a good word.
It seems that a lot of people are depressed right now. They’re depressed about Gaza. About Iraq. Yet another series of X Factor. The traffic. And weather. And interest rates. They “want to die” because they didn’t get tickets for next year’s Hamlet. Harry Styles won’t follow them on Twitter. Their parents bought them the wrong-coloured iThing.
Only, of course, they’re not. If you’re so depressed you want to die then you’d be in hospital, medicated to the point that breathing is pretty much the only thing you can consciously do, under 24 hour supervision and incapable of rational thought.
The majority of those claiming to be depressed are suffering perhaps from temporary low mood. It’ll pass. Talking therapies, that awful 2014 buzzword “mindfulness”, perhaps a mild 10mg dose of Citalopram, a little bit of time and patience, will sort it.
When we misuse words like “depressed” something insidious and destructive happens. They become part of our vernacular, their meaning is diluted, it becomes much harder to give weight and necessary attention to those who really are suffering from depression. Real depression is something so serious, so life-threatening, so heavy, that it is more than disingenuous to bandy the word around lightly – it is dangerous. Robin Williams was depressed. He was so depressed he killed himself. Fame, adulation, money, love, commercial success meant nothing in the face of it. Like cancer, depression is an equal-opportunity killer. Unlike cancer its sufferers are too often greeted with a creeping sense of blame and suspicion, rather than compassion and horror. Links have been drawn regularly between creativity and depression. But as much as it suits the image of the tortured artist to manufacture such links, it is an erroneous and unhelpful comparison. It implies that there is an upside, that the payoff for wanting to die is being able to produce something immortal and creative. But there is no payoff. You create despite the vice and voices in your head, not because of it. There is no upside. There is, with luck and love and the right support, the chance that you will stay alive. There is the (much smaller) chance that you will stay alive with some degree of contentment. There is, all too often, the chance you won’t do either of these.
Depression is like being forced to wear a cloak made of lead. You don’t get to choose when to put it on and take it off. It is a second skin which gradually seeps into your own, real skin and poisons it until you are a walking, toxic, corrosive bundle of infectious awfulness. The thought of suicide is the only real respite and the only chink of light at the end of the tunnel. You can “pull yourself together” only inasmuch as you can make yourself three feet taller. Whether you’re alone in a squalid bedsit with tinfoil on the windows or in a 17-bedroom mansion with a loving family and the career of your dreams makes no difference.
We all know this. And yet we still continue to talk about how depressed we are, secretly think of diagnosed depression as a bit of a cop out, give a little mental eye-roll at the news that (yet) another celebrity is suffering from depression and instantly take the moral high ground because, well, how can anyone wealthy and famous dare to be depressed. This is why people “admit” depression. They “reveal” it and “come out” about it. It’s not good enough to simply have it. People commit crimes. They commit fraud, treason, rape. They commit war crimes. They commit suicide. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under the age of 35. A million people a year do it; 10-20 million a year try to do it. There is no question that talking about depression is vital. Being able to give it a voice is the only way to lessen the stigma and help manage it. And my hope is that one day, when someone “admits” they are suffering from depression, they will be treated with genuine, helpful care. We will get there quicker if we choose our words more carefully.