Woke up on Tuesday to the stunning news of Robin Williams’ untimely passing? Along with millions on this part of the world, I did.
No, I won’t talk about his extraordinary talents or stellar career—you can’t fit them in 800-plus words anyway. But I want to talk about what people don’t talk about until a dramatic demise happens. Mental illnesses—in which depression, which Williams had suffered from for years, is one.
The problem immediately lies in the fact that “depression” generally defines sadness, whereas “clinical depression” is a diagnosable mental disorder that requires medical treatment. Most people who never experience clinical depression often fail to fathom why a clinically-depressed person is any different than someone having the usual blues we all feel at times.
Beyond linguistic vagueness, often lack of physical marks makes many people believe that mental illnesses are unreal. There are no cuts, bruises, fractures or discoloration. “It’s all in your head” the sarcasm goes, and how true it is. Yet just because it’s somewhere inside the mind where you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not a real, medical disease.
That lack of understanding creates the misconception that a person battling depression, or mental illnesses in general, is someone simply losing grip of his/her mind—the very core of being. Misconception breeds no compassion. In the modern world fiercely prizing sharp intellects and driven personalities, carrying a weak constitution is equivalent of being born a hunchback in Ancient Sparta. Forget about winning the game, sometimes you’re not even allowed into the stadium at all. Career opportunities reduced, social life stunted. So instead of checking for symptoms and getting medical treatments people clam up about their mental health problems, sink into a bottomless hole while hurting themselves and others along the way, stigmatizing mental illnesses further in a vicious cycle that doesn’t benefit the entire society in the long run.
Several years ago I hit a very low point in life. At the beginning I didn’t consider it any different than some bout of unhappiness that one may feel after a series of letdown. Knowing some about the standard Kubler-Ross grieving stages I went with the flow—punching sandbags, pigging out comfort food, impulsively shopping for whimsical shoes and horrible lipsticks, crying myself to sleep. But things only worsened. I started sleeping sparsely or not at all, failing to focus on simple tasks, and losing appetite. Certain days I was just too exhausted to leave bed even after hours of sleep. I felt I had not much left to deal with the world that was rapidly closing in on me. With my last good sense I searched online for my conditions and found that I ticked half the boxes for clinical depression. Red flags.
I went to seek help. I went to see professional counselors. I even went away on meditation and recuperating retreats. It turned out to be a mild case of depression that required no prescription drugs, yet the healing process was admittedly tedious and discouraging at times. I persisted through the rollercoaster ride before gradually feeling better. Was I lucky to have held a bit of knowledge or awareness to seek professional help? Yes. Was I lucky to have had some resources to afford consultations and healing time? Gratefully, yes. Was I lucky to have known better about society’s potential backlash that I barely told anyone, even my closest friends, that I was getting help? Disturbingly, yes.
Disturbingly, because anybody suffering from an illness should never have been in the position to get too self-conscious to seek the best professional help available, or at least affordable. More disturbingly is because nobody suffering from an illness should have needed to be in luck before finding treatment. Just as someone with back pain see osteopath or one with leukemia see oncologist, then someone with a mental problem should be able to freely seek professional help from psychologist or psychiatrist without needing to worry about social repercussion. I mean, if A has cancer and B shuns A for having a cancer that A has to tiptoe to see doctors, won’t you call B a heartless jackass? If so, then why should it be any different when A has a mental illness?
Fashionistas have mourned for Alexander McQueen and mentor Isabella Blow. Music diehards have lost Kurt Cobain and Michael Hutchence. We’re all reeling from Robin Williams’ shocking departure. What about non-celebrities among us? What about that little person inside all of us? Are we doing okay? Are YOU doing okay?
Start small. Instead of using your search engine to find Syahrini’s latest antics, look up “clinical depression”. Read carefully, and calmly. Buy books if you want. Read on mental health disorders enough to be able to recognize basic symptoms. Seek professional help if you suspect you’re suffering from a mental health problem. Support people in need of help while knowing that though your friendship is valuable and religious clerics may bring a certain comfort, medical professionals are what needed most. And, for the love of God, stop using “bipolar”, “split personality” or “psychopath” as a punch line for jokes. Mudding those medical terms on public mind only makes it harder for actual mental health patients to seek the help they need.
“Now you’re free, Genie”, Academy Awards tweeted the heartbreaking still from Aladdin. Every Genie deserves to get help to be free. Please do your part as necessary.