I’m going to start off with a huge disclaimer: I am not a health care professional. I don’t know the proper way to diagnose a person with depression or exactly how or why a person may be more at-risk for such a difficult, often lifetime mental disorder.
But the subject of depression is on my mind because of the news of actor/comedian Robin Williams' tragic death due to suicide.
I am a daughter of a doctor, a psychiatrist, who, in my book, is one of the most understanding and brilliant docs out there.
Growing up, I always struggled with intense emotions. I would get really, really obsessive about things that most people would be able to shrug off, such as getting a new haircut, or falling asleep and wondering if I left the closet door open, or not being able to let go of a rude comment a “friend” made at school. Sometimes I didn’t know how to handle my emotions, and I would stew about them for so long that my mom would tell me to go upstairs and hit my pillow.
Funny looking back now, I wonder why I never really sat down and talked with my dad about my obsessive fear of tornadoes, ghosts and basements. My parents were always there, willing to help and talk with me, but I often resisted, insisting everything was OK. It was just part of who I was.
These little obsessive characteristics haven’t overtaken my life or turned into a major depressive disorder. But for many people, clinical depression is a battle to be fought over and over again, each time carving out deep crevices on their heart.
We hear people say all the time, “Ugh, I’m just so depressed!” — throwing that word around like it’s just a feeling or emotion that comes and goes with the closing of another “Downton Abbey” season.
But it’s not.
Clinical depression is a biochemical brain disorder. My father was able to help me understand the brain a little better, and that there is absolutely no shame in taking care of the most important organ in your body — the “head of the house,” so to speak.
In my feeble attempt to translate my father’s medical speak, basically when a person is diagnosed with depression, it means the brain is deficient in one of three neurotransmitters that are responsible for a person’s mood: serotonin, dopamine and/or norepinephrine. When the brain becomes deficient, depression sets in, through no fault of the person suffering.
“You don’t see past the next corner,” my father says. “You can’t think long-term. It limits your ability to proceed down the road. It’s utter hopelessness.”
It doesn’t matter what favorable circumstances are going on in your life. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, if you are successful or if you have a wonderful, stable family. Depression can strike anyone, anytime.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke about depression in his October 2013 General Conference talk, “Like a Broken Vessel.”
“We sense the complexity of such matters when we hear professionals speak of neuroses and psychoses, of genetic predispositions and chromosome defects, of bipolarity, paranoia and schizophrenia,” Elder Holland said. “However bewildering this all may be, these afflictions are some of the realities of mortal life, and there should be no more shame in acknowledging them than in acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor.”
Sometimes, well-meaning family and friends try to “talk a person out of” their depression, thinking if they can just get them to change their attitude, things will get better.
“Oh, dear. Your brain doesn’t work properly? Hmm. Try to eat some ice cream and visualize having a better day.”
I do believe in the power of positive thinking, which can absolutely bring about miracles. But it won’t solve major problems all on its own. And unfortunately, the Peter Pan idea to just “think happy thoughts” won’t necessarily work if there is an actual physical chemical imbalance.
Eating right and getting enough sleep can help, but they are not enough for severe clinical depression. That’s when therapy and medication play a crucial role.
“Depression is the grand imposter — posing as all powerful,” wrote Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist, in a column for Fox News. “It can be defeated, every time, if you or the person you care about confronts it like the grand imposter that it is. Tell yourself that if depression is visiting you. Tell any friend with depression. Tell your family members who suffer with it. It is absolutely true. I promise you.”
So many people suffer in silence, because for some reason, the subject of depression is still taboo in our society.
When asked if he thought depression was sometimes overdiagnosed, my father responded with a quick, “No. In fact, I think it’s under-diagnosed. A lot of people suffer in silence. Society thinks that if you’re depressed, you’re somehow inadequate. People need to come forth and realize it’s not mental weakness on their part or spiritual inadequacy or anything like that. We can talk about any medical illness from the neck below. But as soon as you get into the brain, it becomes taboo and hush-hush. The most complex organ of our whole body is our brain. If something goes wrong with that, we hide it. And the fact is, depression is very treatable.”
For families such as the Williamses who have lost beloved members due to suicide, I offer this: love, love and more love. They don’t need judgment. They don’t need pity. They don’t need criticism. They need the healing balm of time and the understanding of those of us who have never walked in their shoes.
Carmen Rasmusen Herbert is a former "American Idol" contestant who writes about entertainment and family for the Deseret News.