Culture

Now More Than Ever, We Need To Talk To Each Other About Mental Illness

We don't talk about it nearly enough - to each other, or ourselves - and that has to change.

If you suffer from depression, you can reach Lifeline 24 hours a day  on 13 11 14.

This morning, depression was once again thrust into the spotlight in the worst possible way, with the devastating news coming through from the US that beloved actor and iconic comedian Robin Williams has taken his own life.

It seems bizarre that a man who brought so much joy into people’s lives was unable to find lasting joy in his own, but anyone with depression can understand how such a seemingly impossible dichotomy can exist. I have depression, and around 178,000 people aged 16 to 24 in Australia do as well. At this point, it’s worth examining what exactly depression is, and — if you have it, or think you might — what you should do.

Depression is a very difficult thing to explain to people who don’t have it; partly because it’s different for everyone, but also because it describes an absence rather than a sensation. A common misconception is that depression is simply ‘feeling blue all the time’. It’s not, although it often leads to being down more often, and more severely. Williams said it best when he called it the “lower power”, the little voice inside that sees a bottle of Jack Daniels and goes “hey, just a taste”. In 2006, he described it to ABC News: “You’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice, that goes: ‘Jump’”.

He was right. Depression is not a feeling, of sadness or anything else; it is the sickly white glow of a laptop screen in the middle of the day. It is the hideous, blissful buzzing that fills the brain when hours of relentless scrolling through Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, news articles — something, anything — finally do their job and you slip into a waking trance, a self-administered anaesthetic. It is the telltale reek of a room that has been lived in too long; the hothouse fug of old sweat and unwashed sheets, and plates of food beside the bed. It is the grinning desperation behind the sixth beer. It is a sickly pressure under your ribcage that you can touch with your hands and feel the contours of, like an organ gone bad.

If the condition itself is difficult to describe, the effects are often all too tangible. Nine months ago, when I first walked into a doctor’s office and admitted I have depression, I was a wreck. I had been on a steady downward spiral for about three or four years that, on paper, reads like a mid-life crisis come twenty years too early. I had failed around a year’s worth of university subjects, lost two jobs, and almost gone bankrupt. I would spend weeks at a time not leaving the house and, as far as was possible, my room. I would often go days without changing clothes, or having a shower, or brushing my teeth. I retreated from my parents and my friends, and invented elaborate stories to hide my circumstances from them.

If this sounds like you, or it reminds you of someone close to you, that is a sign. At this point it can be difficult to know what to do; it can be a hugely painful thing to admit to yourself. But you must admit it, and you must act.

I was first diagnosed when I was seventeen, and I went badly wrong in assuming I could deal with it on my own. I thought, like a lot of people do, that the way I was acting was a sign of a defect in my character; some fundamental weakness that made me lesser than the people around me, and that I could overcome by just growing some stones and changing my attitude. I thought seeking medical help would be giving in to that weakness. It wasn’t until I could no longer pretend that I was coping, even to myself, that I went to see a doctor.

Now, first thing every morning — before breakfast, before a shower, before my eyes are even half-open — I take a little green-and-white pill that has been prescribed to me by a medical professional. Twenty milligrams of fluoextine hydrochloride in a spongy, easy-to-swallow capsule that I wash down with a glass of water before I start on my Weet Bix.

Six months since I started taking those little pills, I’m out-of-sight better than I used to be. I get up early; I drink less; I exercise more. I feel good, most days. I have my bad patches, but I don’t recognise myself from the person I was. My life as it is would not be possible had I not sought help.

I am still depressed. It is possible that I always will be. But those little green-and-white pills get me on my feet; they get me out of the house; they get me washed and dressed and into the day. They’re not perfect; they’re not a cure-all, and they’re not enough purely by themselves. But for me, they’re a hell of a start.

Maybe my little pills aren’t for you; maybe the thing that gets you there is something else entirely. But whatever it is, go find it. If you’ve been putting it off, don’t put it off anymore. Go to a doctor and tell them how you feel. Get a prescription, go to the chemist and fill it. Take your pills. If they don’t work, talk to a counsellor. Tell your friends, your family, anyone who can and will help you whenever and however you need them to.

If who know someone who is depressed, talk to them. Listen to them. Do not judge them, or reach conclusions for them, but let them know you are there for them. Recently a good friend confided that he has tried to kill himself a few times. I had suspected he was severely depressed, but I had never asked him how he was feeling, or if he was seeking help. Like me, he is now far better than he was, but it makes me shake to think how close I’ve come to needlessly losing someone I love. Nothing is worth that; no awkwardness, no uncomfortable silence.

A lot of people have been observing that if it can happen to Robin Williams, a man who devoted his life to the pursuit of joy and laughter, it can happen to anyone. They are right. No one is immune.

But no one is beyond help, either. I thought I was. My friend thought he was. But we are still here, better than we were, and hopefully on the way to being better still.

Say no to death. Say no to nothingness, and blankness, and silence. Get help. You are worth the saving, and life is worth the living.

If you suffer from depression, you can reach Lifeline 24 hours a day  on 13 11 14.

Feature image by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

Comments

Comments

  1. Mel says:

    Thanks for sharing, Alex. Without a doubt one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on Junkee.

  2. edenland says:

    Yeah this is a fucking brilliant piece. Good on you, Alex. My brother killed himself nine months ago, never sought help, didn’t want the stigma. I am annihilated. Sharing your story so frankly is saving lives. x

  3. Matt Roden says:

    Hi Eden and Alex – thanks for writing this. Moments like this are the best and worst for remembering why it is that we don’t get to see some of our friends any more, and that being open and understanding to those who struggle with depression might assist them in finding help before things turn dire. Robin Williams was a cool guy who put a lot of energy into making other people happy. My best friend Cam was too. Hope everyone who reads through this reaches out to a friend in need or can turn to someone close for help if they need it.

  4. Yeah, but how about we talk about bipolar disorder? It’s more stigmatised, it’s deadlier, and it’s *actually* what Robin Williams was suffering from. Obviously NOT at the expense of talking about other mental illnesses, but still…

  5. damien says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Alex. Ive known about it for years, but this tragedy and in particular this article have changed things for me. I’m reaching out. Again, thanks dude.

  6. Magenta says:

    Great article Alex, thank you for writing it. I just wonder if it’s better advice (particularly for teenagers and young adults) to say go get counselling and then if that doesn’t work try medication… or if you are going to try medication to make sure you try counselling at the same time (this is what the beyondblue guidelines for youth depression say). Counselling is not always available sadly but becoming more so, especially with online counselling becoming more available (e.g. for those living in remote parts of Australia). Thanks again.

  7. Diana Kalfas says:

    Thank you for sharing! Great piece.

  8. toucans says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, you are a beautiful soul and I hope with all my heart that you continue to get better.

    My partner has bipolar, I have seen how depression has destroyed him at times. Once he overcomes that though, he has to deal with debilitating mania that makes him so stressed and agitated he can barely function. He sees a psychiatrist and takes medication but it is a struggle for him every day. He is the greatest person I have ever known, he is so witty and funny and the most compassionate man.

    I cried when I heard about Robin Williams this morning, for the loss of this wonderful man, for his suffering and because his situation hits so close to home.

    Take care of yourself xo

  9. Sav Szelski says:

    I think this is a great piece and very well written. Nothing can describe depression to it’s full extent and the experience is always unique for every person. I have to admit though, the thing I don’t like about your approach in the article is that not only do you address it here, but also the way society addresses depression, is that: it must be medicated. I have struggled with depression throughout my life and so have family around me and the worst thing I have experienced is with medication. I see a psychologist and the thing she tells me is that [she believes] we cannot fully progress/develop or get better alone. We can only help ourselves to an extent but we need others to help us along. Before you do anything, if you discover you are suffering from depression, is to TALK. It helps more than you will ever realise. Medication should only be a last resort [in my opinion].

  10. toucans says:

    I agree that we need to be talking more about bipolar, especially given the huge issues with diagnosis of the illness. On average it takes someone 10 years to be diagnosed because it is not unless someone experiences a psychotic episode that it is picked up. Where bipolar isn’t recognised, individuals will usually be diagnosed with depression and prescribed anti-depressants which for some people can trigger mania or make the depression worse.

    My partner has rapid cycling bipolar and can go high to low in a few hours but his ‘highs’ manifest as agitation and stress to the point where I fear he may self harm or suicide. He has to take medicine to sleep evry night because he may be ridiculously tired but his mind will not stop racing.

    Bipolar is definitely stigmatised and it is so sad because it is based on ignorance. I also feel like the media are avoiding talking about bipolar in relation to Robin Williams. Is this demonstrative of the level of stigmatisation of the illness (ie he wouldn’t be revered the same way?!), or perhaps there is an innocent explanation and I have read too much into it.

  11. Tahlia says:

    Firstly, thank you Alex for writing this piece. It’s so important that others realise they aren’t alone in their battle and this was incredibly well written. I do agree with Sav though. I’d really encourage anyone being diagnosed with any type of depression to really try to see a counsellor or psychologist at least when you first start on the meds. Having been prescribed lexapro before, there can be negative effects before your body gets used to the meds, and it can sometimes make you feel worse for a certain amount of time. Talking to a professional is also so so important.

  12. Alex Templar says:

    You do a pretty solid job of describing depression, far better than I ever could. And yes, the little pills certainly do help. Not cure, but get you back on your feet and keep you fighting. Well done., nice piece.

  13. Nadia Masot says:

    Great article. I don’t completely agree that nobody is beyond help. My father took his life after fighting a losing battle for over a decade WITH help. He completely lost all sense of rational thought. But that was a long time ago. You’re right, depression comes in many forms and hence the right medication is a must. Sometimes that can be a challenge. RIP Papa x

  14. Nadia Masot says:

    Great article. I totally agree that so much more discussion needs to happen in order to destigmatise mental illness, even depression in this case. I’ve seen comments floating around in the Facebook feed even now about how selfish the act of suicide is. I think that in the context of mental illness, making statements like that is treading on thin ice to say the least! I lost my father to suicide after a more than a decade of fighting manic depression WITH help and medication. He lost touch with reality. I don’t think that counts as selfishness. And as someone who inherited those genes, I understand his plight to a small extent. That was 20 years ago. I am so grateful I am in the fight now, and not back then. But we still have a long way to go.

  15. Alice Oh Jesus says:

    yeah allot of people deny they have depression…i have never denied anything…….when I’m down I’m really down and i want the whole fucking world to be down with me and if there not down i hate there guts…but i feel ok now so its ok..everyone carry on as they were..but if you are in a group of people and you mention you having difficulty with depression or life or your start doing weird stuff people look at you in a funny way and in the past people have just looked at me and just changed subject….everything gets awkward and because you don’t fit in to there fabulous lives,people just don’t talk to you anymore and you get more depressed. I must admit i was probably out there to shock people because i was probably feeling shit and i was bored as my attention span sucks and usual chit chat shits me. my mother has always said to me nobody likes a sad sack……what happens if you can’t help but be a sad sack and everything you think is dark or grim or hateful ?? one may seek help but sadly if you try to seek help it can cost or there are never enough spaces till this time next year but you need help now!!. I was lucky i got help..basically if you try to actually end you self you go to the top of the list for help..only took 4 attempts two shitty attempts and two full blown attempts to get help…well thats what happened to me…..what about those other people who know better than to try and hurt them selfs but are still suffering just the same?…I seriously am ok right now but all of the above has happened to me with in the last 2 years…..i have actually been sick for a long long long time but i didn’t realise i was sick…i just thought i was lazy and useless and couldn’t find any goodness ever in anything i did….I know I’m not the only person like this so i don’t care about talking about what its been like.. And yes everyone is so different mental illness is like the universe its massive and can stem out to other galaxies that we have not explored… I don’t have half the friends i used to have I could not keep up relationships with people..it was mentally draining….then you go in to hiding out for long periods of time with out seeing a soul..or speaking to people…you watch what everyone is doing on Facebook ..and then you realise you have not left the house for a week or two and to do anything is hard but you get upset because you are alone..BLAH BLAH BLAH..ect ectectetcetce..I have been on antidepressants since i was 17..im 30 now…i don’t think i will ever come off them due to my brains lack of what ever chemicals…slowly i will probably have to take more and more..things that have helped my depression is having a dog and a cat animals in general seem to make me feel peaceful .Things that don’t help are relationships that end when you are not ready for them to end especially i you think you love them..i am leaving soon to try and start a new life in Europe for a year or two….this time last year i tried to do the same in Canada but kept having panic attacks due to everything feeling so over whelming and feeling absolute shit about my self…i have worked so flipping hard to become a stronger person….to be honest the last few years have been a complete write off and what feels like a waste of time because they were so shit…i can’t give real advice to people because sometimes when a person is so utterly depressed nothing you say will bring them out of that hole in the ground..they will always find a way to spin your advice into absolute dribble and turn it on its head to make out like anything you have got to say is wrong or not helping…sometimes its just takes a long long long time…or a larger dose of antidepressants. People think i have bad tastes in making jokes about my stay at the mental hospital or my time in intensive day therapy or my times i went to emergency..but if i can’t joke or laugh about my own crap what the hell can i joke and laugh about?

  16. Polly Rose says:

    Great piece, Alex, thanks for letting us in and sharing your story…But I’m concerned about the author’s advice to try medication prior to talking therapy. It should really be the other way around. I am a social worker and freelance writer who also has lived experience of depression.

    It should be acknowledged that “Take your pills. If they don’t work, talk to a counsellor” is not an evidence based treatment method, nor is it particularly good medical advice, and this should be made clear to readers.

  17. Johnny says:

    All due respect to you buddy, that is indeed one of the most useful pieces I read on internet. May God bless you and completely heal you.

  18. pookie says:

    Holy shit, this is an apt and eloquent piece of writing. I’ve always been praised for my writing and communication skills and beat myself up because I was always unable to put that feeling, or lack of, into words. Thank you for this.

    “Depression is not a feeling, of sadness or anything else; it is the sickly white glow of a laptop screen in the middle of the day. It is the hideous, blissful buzzing that fills the brain when hours of relentless scrolling through Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, news articles — something, anything — finally do their job and you slip into a waking trance, a self-administered anaesthetic. It is the telltale reek of a room that has been lived in too long; the hothouse fug of old sweat and unwashed sheets, and plates of food beside the bed. It is grinning desperation behind the sixth beer. It is a sickly pressure under your ribcage that you can touch with your hands and feel the contours of, like an organ gone bad.”