Mon | Mar 27, 2017

Robin Williams, depression and suicide

Published:Monday | August 18, 2014 | 8:00 AM

Michael Abrahams, Online Columnist

Robin Williams was one of my favourite actors and comedians. I loved his television and film work, and his stand-up performances would literally leave me on the floor in stitches. His demise is a tragic loss to the entertainment fraternity.

Unfortunately, his death, by suicide, has prompted many comments in social media by ignoramuses and religious zealots which indicate that they have very little understanding of depression. There’ve been comments such as "Only God gives life and only He should take it away so I am not going to R.I.P. anybody who commits suicide" and "I have lost all respect for Robin Williams...the Bible did say that he committed the 'unpardonable' sin and is going to Hell" and "DEPRESSION IS A DEMONIC DISEASE".

Depression is a real illness. It is not just feeling sad or down. I should know; I have been dealing with it for most of my life. Ever since being diagnosed in my late teens, it has plagued me. Episodes may occur after upsetting incidents or situations, but sometimes they may occur out of the blue, from out of left field, with no warning whatsoever. And then the symptoms intensify. The persistent sadness, the feelings of inertia and fatigue, the sleep disturbance, the anorexia, the desire to be isolated and to avoid social interactions.

But I don't go around looking for sympathy or feeling sorry for myself. I see it for what it is - a medical condition - and approach it as I would any other malady, such as hypertension or diabetes; I get help for it, and then I am fine.

The interesting thing about depression in our culture is that many people with the condition do not even realise they have it. Whereas a Caucasian with depression in North America is likely to present to a doctor complaining of feeling depressed, Jamaicans often present with physical symptoms, what we in medicine call somatisation. So someone may visit the doctor for pelvic pain this month, then headaches next month, then indigestion the following month, and so on, when they really are suffering from depression.

But the stigma and lack of understanding of the illness present significant barriers to treatment. Sometimes when I refer patients with depression to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, they respond by asking me if I think they are mad, when obviously they are not. Health is defined as a state of physical, mental and social well-being, so if you are mentally unsettled, you cannot be healthy.

And declarations by some persons of faith that the illness is demonic and that faith in God and acceptance of Jesus Christ will cure it are not only false and unhelpful, they may actually be harmful. Many Christians suffer from depression, and statements such as those may diminish their already-attenuated self-confidence and self-esteem when they realise that, despite their faith, the condition persists, and those already on the edge may be pushed into taking their own lives.

Which brings me to the issue of suicide. Depression can reach a level of severity where the mental anguish can be so intense and the magnitude so heavy and unrelenting that, to the sufferer, the only rational solution, in their irrational mind, is to cease to exist, because then, and only then, can their tortured soul attain some semblance of peace.

Unless you have suffered from severe depression, this is difficult to understand. As an obstetrician, I look after pregnant women and understand pregnancy. But, being a man, I may never truly know how it feels to be pregnant and carry a child for nine months and then push that child out of my body.

And so it is with depression. Unless you are afflicted, you really will not understand what we go through. Instead of judging, dismissing or condemning, try to exercise empathy instead. And if you or persons you know are suffering in silence from depression, please get help.

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.