Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Learning from Robin Williams

Like millions, I'm mourning Robin Williams. 

In addition to being a writer, I'm also an occupational therapist at a psychiatric day hospital. Our program mostly serves people who are suffering from depression. Some have made unsuccessful suicide attempts, some are traumatized by living with the aftermath of a family member who has committed suicide. All are working to recover their lives... to pull out from under the dark, heavy cloud that is depression.

I'm so very sad that Robin suffered. It breaks my heart to think about what he might have been experiencing his last few days, hours, minutes.

His death is a big loss. It feels to me like he slipped away too easily. But I also don't claim to know what he was actually going through. We will never truly know. 

And yes, there's help out there. But there's also stigma. Stigma for seeking help and stigma for having depression. Depression is considered a mental illness. It would do everyone so much good if we could drop the use of "mental" and see it for the illness that depression is. 

In fact, this is what we can all learn from the death of Robin Williams. To think of depression just as we think of diabetes: as a disease that requires management. Depression is like this. It's a disease that requires treatment and ongoing management. It sounds so simple and yet, both require ongoing focus and doing a number of strategies to keep the difficult symptoms at bay, so that living a meaningful life is possible. All of this is so much harder when people experience shame for having an illness. 

I'm blessed to work with the patients I serve. My role is one of assisting to excavate their selves that get lost in the battle that is depression. And then once they remember who they used to be, to help them to build those selves back up. To guide in finding their way to the life they dream for themselves. Theirs is difficult and courageous work. As a witness, I find it beautiful. And uplifting. 

So let's look depression in the eye and see it for what it is: a nasty disease. Let's support those suffering from it, not stigmatize them. 

If we do, America will be that much more beautiful.