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Depression is a mental disorder that carries with it a stubborn social stigma, as well as a thunderous silence. But ever since Monday, when the heartbreaking news of Robin Williams’s suicide came with the detail that he was “battling severe depression of late,” the floodgates of personal sharing on the topic have busted wide open. Across the Internet, from Twitter and Facebook to individual blogs and the columns of major news sites, people both well-known and obscure are coming forward to talk about battles with demons of their own.
“I am lucky to be alive,” wrote celebrity blogger Perez Hilton on his Facebook page. “And even luckier that I didn’t listen to that doctor who misdiagnosed me as bipolar after meeting me only once when I was thinking of suicide daily for months during a powerful depression in my mid 20s. Talking openly about #depression removes any ‘stigma’ or ‘shame.’ You don’t have to suffer silently!”
It’s a truth that’s finally getting out there, which, despite the fact that it took a tragedy to make it happen, is positive, according to Chicago-based clinical psychologist Karen Cassiday, president-elect of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “I think it’s a very good thing that people are disclosing their depression, as it leads not only to social support, but also social recognition,” she told Yahoo Health. “If something is kept silent, it creates stigma. It’s important for people to find out that they are not alone.”
That’s especially important, according to Cassiday, since there’s a “persistent public perception that everyone else [but you] is very together.” But the truth of the matter is that, according to various statistics, more than half of the population will meet the criteria for a mental illness at some point in their lifetimes, she said. “So we’ve completely misunderstood what ‘normal’ is,” Cassiday added.
But word is finally getting out. Scary Mommy blogger Deborah Cruz shared her own bipolar diagnosis in an essay this week, noting that news of Williams’s suicide is “a punch to the gut because many of us who suffer from this diagnosis know that this is a very real outcome for our lives.” In “It’s Time to Share My Dirty Little Secret,” blogger Tammy Palazzo wrote, “People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in every day life. These are just some of the myths that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness. For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat — typically the life of the party. And no, I am not bipolar. I simply am not depressed every single day. But when I go down, I go down hard. And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up.”
Fellow comedians have gotten serious in honor of Williams, too. On her Facebook page, Judy Gold wrote, “Two years ago, I did a benefit for a NYC Mental Health Organization at the Comic Strip. When I finished my set, I told the audience that I suffer from clinical depression, and I got one of the biggest applause breaks of my career.” She later posted a photo of her medication sitting atop books including “Darkness Visible,” and noted, “I will never be ashamed. Time to get rid of the stigma and start talking. RIP Robin.” Another comic, Marc Maron, in introducing the repost of his sadly prescient 2010 podcast interview with Williams, noted in a shaky voice,
“Depression is real… I do know what depression is… Having a father that struggles with it, it’s a horrible thing.”
Comedian Sky Williams delivered a powerful personal statement via his YouTube channel, that’s quickly going viral, to try and explain how depression feels. “I know what it feels like, and it’s more than just not being happy. It’s like you can’t bring yourself to be happy,” he said. “You look at the things you once really loved and enjoyed and you just can’t find enjoyment in them anymore. Sometimes you can’t eat, sometimes you can’t sleep, sometimes you can’t even move.” And Louis CK tweeted a reposted Tumblr essay from Rob Delaney, in which he discusses his suicidal depression.
At BuzzFeed, staffers got real by posting their own personal testimonies. One discussed how he tried to run from demons through alcoholism in his twenties, while others shared tales about their depression-related isolation, suicide attempts, medication adjustments and eventual recoveries. “I went through four different therapists and five different medications before I found the combination that worked for me, and when that happened it was not like magic, it wasn’t like a beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds,” wrote Cates Holderness. “It was like trudging up a mountain pass, swamped in mud and ice with an 80-pound weight around my neck. But finally I reached the peak, and started down an easier path.”
On the Huffington Post, several blog posts this week address the issue: In one, the Rev. Jeff Hood, a Baptist pastor, reveals details about his own attempt to kill himself — as does Shealagh Whittle, who survived swallowing a bottle of Tylenol PM more than a decade ago. “I felt like I was slowly being suffocated from the inside,” she wrote, “like all the light around me had been gradually snuffed out until I was left entirely alone. Parenting expert Katie Hurley, in her essay, discusses the emotional fallout of surviving her father’s suicide.
And the list of personal blogs on the topic is only getting longer, with poignant disclosures from people named Elizabeth Hawksworth, Ginny McQueen, Annabel Giles, Sarah Bessey, and, at Slate, Molly Pohlig, who articulated the threat of the Williams news very well. “It is jarring when a beloved celebrity dies of something you could possibly die of yourself—when all of a sudden people are talking about the illness you have,” she writes, “the one that they usually don’t want to talk about at all.”
To get help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, anytime of day or night, at 800-273-8255.