I have launched WordPress at least six times in order to write a blog post about mental illness. I did after my babies were born. I did after the shootings at Newtown, with tears still fresh on my cheek. I never publish. These posts that I write feel so raw, so vulnerable, so real that I can’t seem to ever publish them. And now Robin Williams has taken his own life and everybody scratches their head and wonders “why?” First, let me say that suicides come in clusters, so as we mourn this loss as a society we should be aware of the everyday people standing next to us who may not be doing so well. The best I can offer right now is a list of things NOT to say to somebody who suffers from depression.
1.) Just Cheer Up! Be Positive!
I put this in the same category as telling a woman who just miscarried “it’s for the best” or telling somebody who lost their dearest friend “they are in a better place”. No, no they are not. And no, I cannot just “cheer up”. If I could just “cheer up” then I wouldn’t have mental illness. No, I would just be having a bad day. Indeed, mental illness is more than just feeling bummed out. Mental illness is a smothering blanket that extinguishes all light, all love and all hope.
2.) It’s All In Your Head
Well pardon the french, but no shit Sherlock! It is in my head – that is why it is called ‘MENTAL ILLNESS’. I cannot control my head. If my head was healthy – like your head – then I could manage it, but I can’t. There is something so painful about looking into the eyes of somebody struggling with depression and hear them say, “I don’t know WHY I feel this way, I don’t want to and I wish I could make it stop”. A person with mental illness has lost control of their brain. They intellectually know that their life is blessed, happy, robust but they don’t feel those things. Their brain prevents them from feeling happy and blessed.
3.) It’s Not a Real Illness
Or really any variation of doubting whether or not it exists or is a real thing. Unless you are a mental health expert, have lived with somebody with a mental disease, or experienced it yourself you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. Until you’ve seen an otherwise completely healthy human crippled by depression to the point where they are non-functioning and incapable of taking a shower or getting out of bed you are not allowed to have an opinion otherwise give voice to it.
4.) You Should Totally Exercise – It Releases Endorphins
OMG are you serious?! Nobody has ever mentioned that to me. That is the most mind blowing advice I’ve ever received in my whole life. You should write a book. Many people with depression and mental illness work out. As a matter of fact some do this to excess and it’s called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is frequently associated with an eating disorder. Those are also mental illnesses. And the people who suffer with a mental illness can barely muster the energy to get out of bed and drag themselves through a work day otherwise exercise, eat, take a shower, etc.
5.) Have you tried vitamins? Green Smoothies? Kale? Flaxseed Oil? St. John’s Wort? Carrot Juice? Etc.
Most depressed people have tried EVERYTHING. As a matter of fact they must keep trying new things in order to manage the disease. Remedies that work in the beginning stop working and they have to adjust. Sometimes it takes a combination of a whole host of things to keep the demons at bay and every person is different. No offense to your offer of carrot juice, but a person with depression needs to work with a medical professional and therapist in order to fine tune the treatment regime that works best for them.
What should you say? “Please call me when you need help”. People that suffer with depression feel alone in the sadness — ALL THE TIME. They need constant reminders that they are not alone. If you feel they need professional help, then help them find it. Give them a phone number, drive them to a clinic, let them know you are there. Spend time with the person. Hug. If you are worried for their personal safety then ask them – point blank – “are you thinking of killing yourself” – if the answer is anything but a definitive “NO” then call the suicide prevention line.
I can’t help but think that every person who has taken their own life has regretted it. Perhaps, just perhaps YOU are the very person they need to help them get back on track.