September is World Suicide Prevention month and this month is dedicated to educating people about suicide and suicide prevention. I felt personally compelled — obligated actually — to first write and share this article in September 2014 a month after Robin Williams took his own life. In memory of Robin Williams and other members of our collective human family who have died at their own hands, I am committed to keeping the conversation alive. I hope you will join me. Because this is such a hard topic and incredibly vulnerable to share, a question and answer format felt appropriate to help readers accurately assess what they really know about suicide and depression.
Do you know how many people commit suicide in a given year?
More than 800,000 people die each year by suicide. Some statistics say it’s closer to a million. For each adult who succeeds in suicide, roughly twenty more make suicide attempts.
What does that even mean?
It means that the number of people who commit suicide each year exceeds the number of deaths due to homicide and war, combined. It means that one person commits suicide about every forty seconds. My guess is that six to ten people will have killed themselves by the time you finish reading this article.
No, I’m not kidding. And yes, you should keep reading. You might learn something important that could save someone’s life.
Does This Person Look Suicidal to You?
No, this looks like the face of Robin Williams, one of the funniest, comedians and actors of our time. It does not look like the face of a suicidal person. And yet, it is/was.
Does This Person Look Suicidal to You?
No, this looks like the face of me, a happy, spiritual woman. It’s the face of a woman who is privileged to spend her time teaching and spreading peace and compassion as well as writing an inspirational blog and Facebook page to help “other people.” I’m certainly not a candidate for suicide, right?
Wrong. I have been suicidal.
Why would I be suicidal?
I’m one of the 350 million people worldwide who suffers from depression. Research has consistently shown a strong link between suicide and depression. In fact, 90 percent of the people who die by suicide have an existing mental illness or substance abuse problem at the time of their death. This was true of my former sister-in-law who shot and killed herself with a 9mm glock. This was also true of her daughter, my niece Cady, who at age twenty-four, pumped her veins with a heroin cocktail after acing her quarterly exams at Stanford. Was Cady’s death suicide? We’ll never know. What I do know is this; someone who really wants to live rarely ties up and injects poison into his/her body…
Depression has been my companion off and on since I was thirteen years old. Despite suffering from depression, I have been a talented athlete and student, had a successful career at Microsoft, and have run my own consulting company for more than a decade now. I’ve raised $150 million for nonprofits, and have been blessed to work with spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama. I’ve owned my own home, my own cars, and I know that hundreds of friends, colleagues, family members, and even acquaintances care about me. I’ve also healed myself from cancer without surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. And yet, even with all of these life blessings, I have also been a member of a secret underground club. I have been like so many others, including Robin Williams, who have tried to take our mental health issues underground where we thought we would be safe.
Underground, no one would ridicule or shame us for our depression. Underground, nobody would say to us: It’s all in your head. Just think positive thoughts. Or, Get over it; there are other people much worse off than you. Or, But you are so talented, inspiring and funny! And, one of my favorites; How could YOU be depressed? Your life is amazing. You have so many friends – everyone loves you!
All those things may be true, but so is the ugly underbelly of depression. Those of us gifted with its persistent presence, go underground where we isolate and try to hide and escape from the darkness depression brings. Those of us who go underground go there alone, hoping to win the stand-off with depression, like a cowboy in an old Western flick. Sometimes we win the draw, sometimes we get shot in the thigh, and sometimes we turn the gun on ourselves. Bang! Game over. Depression gone. Sadly, so is the human.
Most often, those of us who suffer, do so alone hoping to rejoin society once we are “normal” again. Sometimes, the darkness fades or even disappears – for a while. When the despair becomes too deep and overwhelming, some of us self-medicate with socially acceptable soft stuff that many people abuse: food, sugar, excessive TV, and sleep. Ah, sleep…my favorite and safest vice. When I’m sleeping, nothing can hurt me. More importantly, I can’t hurt myself. Once we realize the soft stuff doesn’t relieve our immense, invisible suffering, we advance to self-medicating with alcohol, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, sex…anything to numb the dull ache of despair.
Underground, some of us find ourselves considering, just considering, the idea of suicide. We become creatively macabre, and devise skillful ways to off ourselves to make it look like an accident. We don’t want our loved ones to suffer; we don’t want them to forever wonder what they could have done to help us.
Once, I planned how and where I would kill myself. I went as far as to imagine my funeral. I visualized my casket in a hearse being driven down the freeway. It may shock you to learn that imagining this made me feel nothing. That’s what depression does to us on our darker days; we suffer so deeply that we actually stop feeling altogether. Here’s how a dear friend described depression to me: “It’s as if there is a sheet of Plexiglas between the world and me. I can see everything going on, but I can’t feel it, taste it, touch it or experience any of it directly. Life is just out of reach on the other side of the Plexiglas.”
Eventually, if we’re lucky, we emerge from our self-imposed isolation before anyone in our lives suspect how bad it was for us. Churchill was spot on when he referred to his depression as his “Black Dog.” This is one time you don’t want the dog to heel.
Will I ever understand the people in my life who have depression?
Sorry, but no. If you have never felt the effect of Churchill’s “Black Dog,” you will never understand the power, metaphorically speaking, of its strong grip and powerful teeth. People who don’t suffer from depression will never fully understand it. But I truly mean it when I say, “Bless your little hearts for trying.”
Truly, those of you who try to understand depression can sometimes reach us with your empathy, compassion, and kindness. We feel it, and your gestures of sincerity may be what it takes to get us out of the house for a simple walk. I’ve been so depressed and depleted that a friend had to physically pull me back up the hill to my home; I could no longer will myself to walk. This same friend rescued me from a grocery store parking lot when, in a moment of I can’t live like this anymore, I tried to cut my wrists with a tiny pair of first-aid scissors I found in the glove box of my car. Even my half-witted attempts at suicide were depressing. But, then again, I’m not nearly as creative, nor as determined, as Robin Williams was. But mostly, I just did not have the heart to leave my family in despair.
Depression, and any mental health issue, is relative of course. When you are visible and adored in society, as was Robin Williams, you can rarely go underground to lick your wounds and come out when you are all better…until it hits again – and it will.
Robin Williams couldn’t hide underground, so perhaps he self-medicated to cope and continue life above ground. This is only my opinion, of course. I didn’t know him. I just know that I, and many others like me, would rather run naked through a crowded library than admit publicly that we are depressed.
“Why are you depressed? You have such an amazing life?”
As Robin would have said if he were still alive, “OH, FUCK OFF!”
In a television interview after Robin William’s suicide, Dr. Nancy Snyderman suggested that Robin might have been manic in addition to depressed. Ya think? We revered him for his mania. He WAS hilarious when he went unplugged. Hell, we paid good money to see him manic. But, that mania often has an expensive flip side, depression. And we don’t often pay depressed people, do we?
What about antidepressants? Can they help?
Great question. I think antidepressants are fine and can be helpful, if you have a chemical imbalance and/or your life is at risk, as was mine when I felt suicidal. Antidepressants helped me then. But, they aren’t for everyone.
The tough part about pharmaceuticals is that they can increase “The Plexiglas syndrome” and take us further away from life, creativity, and vitality. For example, when I took antidepressants, I realized I didn’t feel as much. I didn’t feel as much pain or despair, for sure. But, I also didn’t feel as much joy, love, or energy. I just felt numb. I had a hard time creating or inspiring others, a great passion for me. Antidepressants can lead to a difficult situation.
I’ve definitely tried to medicate depression with all kinds of creative vices. But, ultimately, self-medicating and going underground does not heal depression. For me, to heal it, I first had to feel it. I had to get out of denial about how bad it was. I had to look for the causes of my depression. Ultimately, I came to realize that my depression came from repression. For decades, I internalized, stuffed, and tried to hide from, my feelings and memories. Inevitably, that immense pain came out sideways in chaotic ways that were as harmful as the depression.
Luckily, through mindfulness, meditation, compassion training, skillful therapy, support groups and hours of gruesome grieving, feeling, and going nearly crazy, I believe it is safe to say that I am on the other side of suicidal thoughts. But, I know I am not done with depression. I know this for two reasons:
One: Those of us who suffer from depression can never say “never.” We don’t know what might trigger a relapse and how far down underground we might go until we reach rock bottom. We can only pray that once down there, petting the black dog, we will reach for the phone, again, to be reminded of why we should live, again, and why feeling it is healing it, and that numbing, overriding, and denial are like a death sentence without a specific date.
Two: Those of us who suffer from depression stand in solidarity to help others who suffer in isolation. And our collective voices became louder because of Robin Williams’ death. In fact, immediately after his death, the number of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline more than doubled, and they experienced the highest number of calls in their history.
In an unpredictable turn of irony, in death, one of the world’s funniest men turned a big ol’ spotlight on those of us who have the hardest time laughing. And now, those of us in that spotlight must keep the conversation about depression and suicide alive. If we let this conversation die, then we let more people die. Remember, one suicide every forty seconds…
What can I do to help??
Thank you for asking. Here are some suggestions:
- Please find compassion for people who suffer from depression or mental illness. Compassion is recognizing someone’s suffering and wanting to do something about it (and then, ideally, actually doing something). Your compassion is like a salve on the wounds of our depression, whereas your judgment is like handing us the bullets to load the gun of our despair and suicidal thoughts.
- Read more about World Suicide Prevention Day on the International Association for Suicide Prevention’s (IASP) website. Their website is the source for most of the statistics in this article.
- Light a candle or say a prayer or meditation to honor those who have taken their own lives and to express gratitude that you are not one of them.
- Share this article with others who are suffering or who know someone suffering.
- What’s in your wallet? Keep the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number in your wallet or phone and have it ready to share with anyone who might need it:1-800-273-8255.
- Reach out: According to the IASP website, studies have shown that social isolation can increase the risk of suicide and, conversely, that having strong human bonds (and connections) can be protective against it. Reach out to those who have become disconnected and offer them support – your friendship may be a life-saving act.
- Read these two articles: A Huffington Post Article on helpful things to say to a person who is depressed. This BuzzFeed Article on important things to understand about suicide.
I’ll end with this. Each year, we mark the anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. We will always remember the nearly three thousand people who died as a result of those horrific events. Every year, we pay tribute to those who died, and think about their friends, families, and colleagues left behind. While we turn our attention to 9/11, let’s not forget 9/10, World Suicide Prevention Day, and the nearly one million people who take their own lives annually due to depression, substance abuse, and a myriad of reasons we will never fully understand. Please remember that with every external world event, which causes us to pause and reflect on the privilege of our freedom, millions among us seem to walk freely, but wage an internal war you simply can’t see.
May we have compassion for all human beings and the suffering they experience, both seen and unseen.
With peace and compassion,