It is my experience that many of you chronically misunderstand mental illness, especially as it pertains to suicide. When discussing suicide, I frequently hear things like “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” or “think about your loved ones.” While stemming from the best of intentions, this advice is completely ineffective and fundamentally ignorant. Now, I’m certainly not trying to say you shouldn’t support loved ones who are battling depression, just that most of you are going about it all wrong. Hopefully, I can help clear up some of these misconceptions.
First, suicide is not a choice. It is the result of an illness, just like death is often a result of cancer, smallpox, ebola, or malaria. These diseases that we are more familiar with are often dubbed “fatal,” but I’ve never heard depression called the same. We are familiar with discussing the mortality rates of different types of cancer, but I bet it sounds a little weird to the majority of you to hear that depression has a mortality rate too! A cancer patient is unable to choose whether they live or die; neither is a patient with depression often able to influence their fate. Since depression is a disease of the mind, the patient has slightly more control over it than a typical disease, but that is only because of the nature of the illness.
Depression cannot be overcome by “manning up,” or “looking on the bright side.” It is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. There are neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain that cause us to feel emotions. In layman’s terms, that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you hug a loved one is caused by the release of chemicals in your brain. However, in a depressed person, this chemical response is reduced, making it harder for them to feel emotions; this is why a depressed person often seems distant, callous, like they don’t care about anything anymore.
When I mentioned that a person with depression has a small degree of control over the illness, I meant that they can alter the chemical pathways in their brain by controlling their thinking. We know that certain ways of thinking about things can help a depressed person’s brain resume normal function. This is why therapy is effective. But we also know that therapy often has only a limited impact on the brain’s chemical pathways, which is why antidepressants are often prescribed in conjunction with therapy. Antidepressants work either by making the brain’s receptors more sensitive to the neurotransmitters involved in creating emotion, or by stimulating increased production of these transmitters (depending on the type of drug).
Now that you know a little bit more about the disease, you can understand better how to help people through it. One of the best ways to help is just to let them know you’re there for them, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Tell them that it is treatable, and that there is no shame in seeking treatment. Unfortunately, mental illness is so stigmatized in today’s society that many people with depression think there’s something wrong with them, that they’re weak, when really they just have a very real illness. There is no shame in being sick. Simply letting them know that can be very helpful.
Even though depression can be a fatal illness, it is treatable! Pneumonia used to be a death sentence, but with modern medicine it is completely treatable and most patients make a full recovery. Depression should be the same way, but society is still bad at diagnosing those with depression and stigmatizes it to a point that people are reluctant to seek help. The mortality rate of depression is unforgivably high in society that has the tools to treat it. Now that you know, go out and do something about it.
PS: I’d like to abolish the word “suicide.” It is simply death. There are no special words for death by cancer, so why does death by suicide need a special word? A person doesn’t “commit suicide,” they die from depression. The word just serves to further alienate depression as a disease and stigmatize getting help.