The death of Robin Williams has taken many aback, myself included. For the past few days, I have asked myself how a man who brought laughter to millions could have committed suicide. The irony of a man who played humorous characters in such films as Mrs. Doubtfire, Birdcage, and Aladdin, not to mention the television program Mork and Mindy, and could not feel joy to his own life is saddening. If a man as hilarious as Robin Williams was unable to defeat his depression, what hope does that leave for those who are dealing with their own depression? What's even scarier is that Williams had been dealing with it throughout his entire life. His ability to overcome substance abuse, only to relapse once again, shows just how difficult it is to not have depression dominate one's life (And I'm sure dealing with the early stages of Parkinson's disease wasn't helping Williams, either). That's another thing with depression: even if it goes away or dissipates, it can always reemerge. Williams' untimely death has been a wake-up call in terms of the effects of depression (see infographic from Healthline here) and its prevalence.
The amount of Americans that are currently dealing with major depression is about 6.9 percent. The lifetime risk of depression is about 17 percent. Depression is the most common cause of suicides (alcoholism being the second most common cause of suicides), and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in this country. The prevalence of mood disorders is truly a public policy issue, and the fact that we treat it as a sign of mental weakness instead of it being the complex mental disorder that it is only creates stigma for those who legitimately need help. Depression affects people because it creates an obstacle in terms of being productive members of society and pursuing happiness.
The silver lining in this whole discussion is that the vast majority of suicides can be prevented, and that study after study shows that depression is treatable [as opposed to being curable] for a large majority of those with depression. From a public policy standpoint, how can we prevent suicides and decrease the rate of depression?
One of the challenges is that it is not easy to detect or diagnose, which is yet another reason I think rates of depression are actually underestimated. Unless someone explicitly tells you that they are depressed or they are clearly exhibiting symptoms, odds are that you are not going to know if a loved one is struggling with depression. That is why I have to wonder just how much the government could do to help. Does the government possess such omniscience that they can detect depression at the click of a button or with some gadget? I think not. If it's difficult enough for friends or family who are close to depressed individual to detect it, how do you expect a bureaucratic agency in DC to figure it out? Short of subsidizing treatments for depression or reforming the disaster known as Obamacare so that people have better access to mental health treatment options, there is not too much the government can do.
So much of being able to help those going through depression is being able to make sure people have support systems in their lives. Since we don't know what sort of internal battles people are having, it is all the more imperative to give people as much of a benefit of a doubt as humanly possible and show some empathy.
Yes, the depressed individual needs to choose to make steps towards treatment and work on cognitive-based therapy or other methods towards treatment. But the individual also needs friends, family, and community, i.e., a social network, to make sure one can get through the treatment process. It's about creating a network and environment that fosters strong emotional health and welfare. As Gandhi, another individual who suffered from depression, said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." We need to start with being empathetic towards those who are in our lives and go from there. Creating a world in which we show kindness to others and help others with their struggles is a step in the right direction, particularly in terms of helping those with depression.
If you are someone or know someone struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, don't wait. Make sure they get the help they need right away.