I deal with thoughts of suicide all the time. Not my own-but those of the people I treat in my work as a psychologist. I suspect a large percentage of the people who seek help for their mental health do so because of depression. A substantial proportion of those with depression admit having thoughts that they might as well be dead. The World Health Organization states that depression is the leading cause of disability for people aged 15 to 44. For people aged 15 to 24 suicide is the third leading causes of death. Older people have the highest rates of suicide, comprising 16% of all suicides in the United States according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Anthony Bourdain was 61 and Kate Spade was 55. These deaths put the focus on suicide once again. These enormously successful and beloved celebrities seemed to have everything to live for; fame, fortune, family and health. I feel a personal sense of grief whenever I read about someone committing suicide as I am all too familiar with the agony experienced by those who live with depression, especially people who contemplate suicide. I speak to people who feel this way almost every day of my working life. I witness lives that are tormented, that feel unendurable. I also know that treatment can help. A common question for psychologists and other mental health practitioners is, “how do you listen to this misery all the time without getting depressed yourself?’ There is a very simple answer: that we see enormous improvement most of the time. Depression CAN be very successfully treated with the tools of psychotherapy and/or medication. Still, the estimate is that a large proportion of those suffering from depression do not seek treatment. There continues to be an enormous gap between professional knowledge and understanding of this terrible affliction and that of the general public. We can’t talk enough about this extremely urgent problem. Lives are truly at stake.
Few who have not experienced severe depression can comprehend it. Friends and loved ones often add to the torment the depressed person feels by telling them to “just get over it” or “not be so self absorbed” or by pointing out others who have more terrible things going on in their lives. These comments just add to the guilt and self-hatred a depressed person is likely to be already experiencing. A situation I see often as a psychologist is a person who has a good life; that is, they have no particular financial, health or relationship problems, but who is still suffering from depression. Science has established fairly well that depression is a biological and probably genetic illness that affects how the brain works and how we perceive reality. At a fundamental level it strips the individual of the ability to experience pleasure. The brain loses it’s capacity to experience joy. While it is true that tragedy, trauma and chronic illness or stress could bring on depression in almost anyone there are also individuals who suffer from depression from an early stage in life despite having many of the benefits which most of think lead to a happy life.
Some people seem to have wonderful lives on the outside who have truly terrible things going on of which others are unaware-substance abuse, financial losses, gambling, traumatic events in their past. As an example, how many of Jerry Sandusky’s victims never told anyone what happened to them but suffered inwardly for years. Many times, even those closest to the person who kills themselves will not know why. Director Tony Scott’s family may not really know. Junior Seau, the well known football player who committed suicide did not leave an explanation with the public and perhaps not his family. Owen Wilson, the sunny actor and comedian attempted suicide several years ago, confusing the public perception and mystifying many who cannot conceive of depression existing in a person with so much success. Billy Joel has spoken openly about his suicide attempt.
We react with disbelief or even anger despite the evidence of so many famous and successful people who end their own lives. We do not know their personal demons and tragedies. We do not know how much and how long they suffered.
A common myth is that those who speak of suicide won’t really do it. That is a great misconception. To even threaten suicide represents a very distressed state of mind worthy of recognition and help. Parents, in particular, are often quick to dismiss suicidal comments in teenagers as histrionics, attempts at attention that is not warranted. Attention should be paid. Depression is serious and real. Lives ARE ended or destroyed. Help is available and treatment is successful in a large percentage of cases. This life threatening and devastating condition deserves our respect and awareness and our loved ones deserve our empathy and support as they battle this soul destroying condition.