A Frank Discussion

A response to an editorial in the Pacific Daily News, August 15, 2014:  Community needs to have frank and honest discussion on suicide

Robin Williams, USA Today file photo.
Robin Williams, USA Today file photo.

Thank you, Pacific Daily News, for bringing up the topic in the wake of Robin Williams’s death and for your frankness.  His death triggered quite a bit of strong feelings in me, since my son took his own life in a similar way almost three years ago while away at college.

While it’s true that many suicides are triggered by short term depression or grief, I am sure that you are aware that chronic mental illness is also a significant trigger, mental illness that may not ever have been officially diagnosed.

In my opinion, we have to reduce the stigma associated with the phrase, “mental illness”.  At the current time it seems like dirty word that we don’t even want to mention.  This fear of being stigmatized has two disastrous effects:

  • It inhibits us from being open enough about our struggles thus preventing us from forming the “safety net” of a small group of close friends or family that we need to catch us if we fall into depression or despair.
  • Mood disorders such as chronic depression are medical conditions and treating them medically should be our first priority.  While our ability to treat these illnesses is improving greatly year by year, the stigma of mental illness prevents many of us from seeking such treatment or prevents the people in our safety nets from helping us to get that treatment.

Some of us are aware that depression “runs in our families”.  With that awareness comes the realization that there is a significant genetic factor involved that we can do little about.  While this is true, and there is much outside our control, we do have control over the environmental factors that often trigger and/or exacerbate the onset of depression in ourselves and our loved ones.  Physical fitness, adequate rest, good nutrition, reflection, and the smart management of stress are well known to be things to pursue first.

But after taking care of these environmental factors, there is still one important thing that I suggest that we do if we have depression in our family history:  let’s create an environment in the privacy of our family life where depression is acknowledged by every member to be a particular family challenge and that each member is free to bring up the topic and to share their experiences with it.  In short, let’s do everything we can to enable our families to be that first “safety net”.  We’re all in this together.


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