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home : opinion : columns May 24, 2016

8/14/2014 6:00:00 AM
Column: Let's stop feeding the 'black dog' of depression
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sidney Paget  (1902)
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sidney Paget (1902)

Ryan Abella
Miner Staff Reporter

I Tweet. I Facebook. I Instagram. I LinkIn. I (insert social media network here). I am wired, so when something like the death of Robin Williams is announced, you can imagine how much my feeds blow up.

Pictures of his past roles flooded my Facebook newsfeed as friends dusted off old VHS tapes of "Hook" and "Dead Poets Society." A tweet of The Genie and Aladdin hugging from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences read, "Genie, you're free."

That's when I shed a tear for a man I only knew through the art he made and the movies I grew up and laughed with.

It didn't take long for the spotlight to shift to the mental health conversation. The circumstances of Williams' death help steer that: a long fight with depression culminating in suicide by asphyxiation.

It's a story too many of us are familiar with, and when someone as public and as vibrant as Robin Williams takes his or her own life we all hope that the mental health conversation stays active for longer than the average news cycle. With statistics like 1 in 10 Americans suffering from depression and suicide numbers on the rise, it's just as important to talk about mental health issues as it is to argue about the economy or who is running for president.

Yet even with decades of research and more accessible mental health care and help lines, we as society still haven't addressed these issues on a personal and social level. We fail to recognize that conditions such as depression do not discriminate. They can and most likely will affect us, or someone we know, at some point in our lives. We cannot fix this only by throwing money or pills at the situation.

We instead view mental health issues as if they are a weakness of character or genetics. While the public narrative says it's OK to be depressed and seek help, on a personal level we treat suffering people as broken goods. We want the world to think we are in control of our lives, and we unconsciously pressure everyone around us to do the same.

We feed the pain by saying things like, "Suicide is selfish" and "It's all in your head." It forces those who are suffering to bottle their pain and bury it in order to remain functional members of society.

I know this because that's how I dealt with depression after graduating in the middle of the Great Recession with a film degree.

I tracked my job search from 2010-11 on an Excel sheet, stopping somewhere short of 300 before deciding that keeping a record of my applications was bad for my psyche.

These weren't just jobs in my field; they were jobs at restaurants, grocery stores, anything that I could qualify for that would keep me busy.

Depression was something I brought on myself: I associated happiness with my work, and without work I wasn't happy. It wasn't logical thinking, and I would learn later that illogical standards like those I put on myself are where depression thrives.

I share this not as a survival story or a call for sympathy, nor can I compare my tangle with depression to that of Williams or others out there. I share this because I still struggle to keep the black dog on its collar and I'm starting to find out what feeds him.

I see it in a job force that treats mental illness as something incurable and not worth investing in. The most valuable asset for a company or business is its human capital. We all lose out on so much talent when we cast away these people - people with manageable and curable conditions.

I see it on social media, the very tools we use to connect. Everyone is happy except for you because everyone needs to portray themselves as happy at all times. It's a vicious circle, and your need for connections will keep you coming back for more.

Our mental health conversation neglects that need for connecting. Sharing our common struggles shouldn't take courage. It should be painless, and it takes a societal shift to make that happen. Nobody should have to pretend that they are okay out of fear or embarrassment.

Until we accept our struggles as endeavors we can bear together, the mental health conversation will fall flat again. Taming the black dog and keeping him at bay requires help, and there is no shame in seeking assistance. It also requires basic human kindness, and exercising that kindness to every person we meet.

As Walt Whitman wrote, and as Robin Williams infamously narrated it: "That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." Every verse in this play is precious, and the black dog has silenced too many.

Let's stop feeding him.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression and needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. You can also contact local organizations such as Mohave Mental Health at (928) 757-8111 or Southwest Behavioral Health at (928) 753-9387.

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