With all of the press and media time that is now being devoted to mental health awareness following the suicide of Robin Williams, I feel compelled to share my own thoughts on the matter and on mental health in general. I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I had pretty much an idyllic childhood and I graduated from one of the top public high schools in the country. And yet despite Cherry Hill’s outward appearance of stability and domestic, financial, and professional success, the community has witnessed an alarming number of suicides in my lifetime. It is commonly thought that suicides are usually provoked by drug use (which is sometimes the case), but they are just as often caused by untreated mental illness.
I remember starting therapy for the first time when I was in the second grade. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when I was 11 years old, and I have been taking medication ever since. Believe me when I say that medication is not a “quick fix.” I still experience spells where I lose my appetite, can’t get out of bed, and occasionally have messy, ugly, inundating sobbing meltdowns at the most inappropriate times (for example, in the middle of class — but if I’m lucky it’s in front of someone I trust and love). Of course over the years I have developed an armada of coping mechanisms — baking, reading, running, art to name a few. I have become relatively good at logic-ing my way out of many spells, and I am very fortunate to have people I love who can yank me back to the surface. But nevertheless, logic and intangible emotion sometimes blur together.
I think that it is during silent, prolonged periods of time when an untreated person just can’t escape the morass of logic and emotion that sometimes leads to suicide. I was 19 years old when the first friend I made in college unexpectedly killed himself. Five months later, I stood with another one of my friends as I called Public Safety because he had come to me confessing his plan to commit suicide through fatal overdose. And I can tell you now that my stories are not unique. There are so many more instances of this: they just may not be reported on worldwide news.
Suicide is a tragic, horrible thing. Anyone and everyone knows that. With the omnipresence of social media and national and world news galore, we are becoming increasingly attuned to the prevalence of mental illness and all of its sinister side effects. However, society being what society is, we read the news headlines and articles, contemplate on how tragic it is and how terrible it must be for the individual’s family, maybe post a link or a quote or a status about it on Facebook. After a few weeks, we forget about it and move on with our daily lives. What we don’t realize is that even though the public is more aware of the need to address mental illness and its treatment, the stigma against actually seeking medical treatment hasn’t really decreased. I have lost count of the number of news editorials I have read about the psychiatric drug industry being a major business scam, about depression being a mere behavioral affliction of people whose lives are not going perfectly according to plan. I have listened to TED talks about how Americans need to stop seeking a quick fix for “feeling sad” by “popping a pill” because those pills will make us incapable of feeling anything or engaging with others. I have had friends tell me to my face that I am “addicted” to my medication, that if I really put my mind to it, I won’t need to take medicine anymore.
What many people do not realize is that depression — just like any other disease or illness — alters your body chemistry. A depressed person’s brain does not physically maintain the necessary levels of serotonin, dopamine, and a whole host of other vital chemicals. Ask any scientist, ask any doctor: can you think yourself into achieving molecular balance? If you ask any member of my family, he or she will most likely say that my depression and its early manifestations in my anger outbursts held everyone hostage for a long time. My medicine enabled the family to begin functioning normally again. Medicine does not emotionally anesthetize me; it does not make me a zombie. It made it so that I can function. And when I function, I thrive: I graduated from Rutgers University Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with High Honors and proceeded to get my Master’s degree. I am now thinking about medical school. I am not allowing depression to stand in my way and I’m certainly not worrying about whether or not society labels me as “drug dependent,” “mentally ill,” or “disabled.”
Openly talking about depression and suicide and mental illness is awkward and uncomfortable. It’s difficult, and people don’t always cope with such discomfort in the same ways. But it is through embracing all of the awkwardness and discomfort that the stigma associated with medically treating mental illness can begin to melt away. I think that actually talking about mental illness is the path towards making the stigma vanish completely. So let’s start talking, and let us continue the conversation well after the “news flash” has worn off. I believe that what Robin Williams said in The Dead Poets Society is true: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”