Robin Williams’ death was tragic news. It was particularly emotional for many people and started lots of discussions about depression and mental health. It’s an extremely difficult thing to accept that someone so wonderful, so brilliant and so loved was so plagued by his own mind. His death was the ultimate tragic culmination of a ruthless disease, but maybe one of the gifts he left behind was the impetus and permission for people to talk about it. Seeing it as too difficult to broach and leaving it in the dark only magnifies its hold over people and makes it more menacing.
It’s so important to reach out and connect with people who are struggling. One of the worst things about my own experience with depression is that I lost my ability to connect with people and became very isolated. It wasn’t until I began to get much better that I realised that’s what was going on and indeed that I was even depressed. That’s because you lose your perspective, it’s all you see. My friend described it as if you’re sitting in a room, so dark that you can’t see your own hands. You know there are doors and windows that, if opened, will brighten the room and the door will in fact allow you to leave, but you can’t move because the pain has paralysed you with its tricks and lies. There is no perspective, but your own dark one.
Connecting with others can be the thing that offers a perspective you can’t see for yourself. It can be the thing that gives you the courage to open just one window, and then another. It’s also why connection is so important to me now. Connecting with people is like a mirror for the things you can’t see for yourself. You see darkness, but they remind you there is a window, there is hope, there is light. This is especially important when you’re depressed because part of the illness is that your mind distorts everything negatively. It’s not the truth, but you can’t see that - you need other people to give you that message, in small, but persistent ways.
There was one discussion in particular that really touched me. One of the people had been struggling with depression for a long time and was only just coming to the point of telling anyone about it. This is incredibly brave and something that I was never really able to do - it’s only fairly recently, with enough distance between that time, that I’ve been able to talk about it at all. Part of the reason is that for me, it was only by coming out of it and getting much, much better, that I was even able to properly recognise that’s what it even was. I understand the distortion of perspective well. This brave person also commented that because feeling like shit was just so familiar, it enabled him to go on for so long without doing anything about it - it had become his usual perspective. I know what he’s talking about. when you feel that terrible all the time, it does become normal. There’s nothing else to compare it to and sadly, eventually for some, that feeling becomes all too much and it really truly does feel like there is indeed no good reason to be alive.
Depression will try to isolate you. It will undermine your worth and fill your head with compelling lies about your value as a human being. It can make people withdraw completely from friends and family, indeed life altogether. It can make people self-medicate themselves with drugs, alcohol and other addictions just to get some respite and alleviate the pain. It can make people treat the people they love in ways that hurt and which are extremely hard to live with. It can make people go crazy trying to put on a front and pretend that everything’s ok, everything’s fine, while the internal war rages on incessantly, day after day. And all of this can be going on inside someone without the outside world ever knowing, reiterating the lie that people will only like me, only love me, can only tolerate me if I’m ok. If they knew I wasn’t ok, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me and I wouldn’t want to burden them anyway.
Another person in that conversation shared that he had lost his sister due to mental health issues and reiterated this extremely important point. Sometimes people with mental health issues can’t reach out and they can’t seek the help they need. It’s all part of the disease. This wonderful and caring person also went on to share a list he’d created to help him be a positive influence on this issue. Little things he tries to do every day to make a difference, to make small connections with people who might be unable to do it for themselves. These are not his words exactly because I wasn’t able to ask his permission to publish his actual list, but I’m hoping he won’t mind me re-creating his ideas …
1. Smile and say hello to people you see whether you know them or not - you never know how much that small act can mean to someone and whether it might be the only smile they see all day.
2. Engage people you meet through the course of your day in a little bit of conversation (e.g. people at the shop, a neighbour) - why not be something positive in their day?
3. Make an effort to talk to and connect with family, even if you’re not close - family is important and you never know when you may stumble on something they need help with.
4. Ask the opinion of others, even if that means admitting you don’t know everything and need some help yourself - it makes people feel good when they think their opinion is valued and you might learn something!
5. Always offer support, even if it’s only moral support - you don’t need to be able to solve the problem, letting someone know you care often half solves the problem anyway.
6. Offer to spend time with people - even if they don’t take you up on it, it’s usually received as an indication that you care and could make all the difference just by asking.
7. And most importantly of all, if you know someone who is depressed, susceptible to depression, or struggling with mental health issues, never give up on them, even if they hurt you.
I know it’s hard to talk about, believe me, but I also know how dangerous it is to become isolated and disconnected from people. I also know that it’s not just the people with depression whose job it is, whose responsibility it is to reach out. The truth is that sometimes and often, they can’t. It’s therefore up to people who are well to reach out to them. Be kind, always, because you never know what someone is struggling with, what internal war they’re battling that you can’t see. I reject wholeheartedly and challenge anyone who says they just can’t understand because they’ve never felt that way, never experienced depression themselves. Sure, maybe not, but everyone, everyone has feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, low self-esteem, stress, overwhelm, anxiety, even if they’re rare and even if it’s only a glimmer. And good for you too - that really is fabulous if you rarely feel these negative thorns, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer someone who does. Stop for a second and think of a time you felt that way, and then imagine that feeling on steroids. Imagine it didn’t go away, ever. Imagine you lived with it every single day and there was nothing you could do about it. Just imagine. Don’t you think you could spare a smile? Ask how someone’s feeling and really listen to the answer. Let them know there is a window and a door, that there is light. It could make all the difference to someone.
Little things do count and they can make a difference. You may never know the effect, but small kindnesses don’t cost you anything either. In fact, making intentional positive connections with people in everyday life, both with people you do and do not know, makes us all happier, healthier and more mentally resilient. In small ways, we can all make a big difference to someone and over time with the compound effect of others doing the same, we make the world a much, much better place.
Photo credit: Robin Williams by Hot Gossip Italia via Flickr