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Editorial: A reminder of the power of depression

It’s not difficult to understand what it’s like to have a migraine even if you’ve never had one. All it really takes is remembering your worst headache and adding degrees of pain.

It’s not so easy to understand severe depression. The starting point in the search for empathy is almost always inadequate. You can’t simply recall a time of personal despair and add degrees of darkness in a quest to understand why someone would take his or her own life.

The apparent suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams on Monday will undoubtedly add a sense of urgency to the national discussion on depression and treatment. That is the one good thing that will come of this. Perhaps many of those who understand depression best, that is, the people who battle it on a daily basis, will step forward to use their stories of treatment and survival to save lives.

Many have already done so.

While Twitter users collectively mourned by sharing their favorite films, anecdotes and photos featuring Williams, comedian Rob Delaney opted to post a link to an article he wrote more than four years ago about his own struggle with suicidal, unipolar depression.

“Over the past 7 years,” Delaney wrote, “I’ve had two episodes that were severe and during which I thought almost exclusively of suicide.”

He goes on to describe the physical symptoms, including nausea and full-body pain, “because it helps to understand that real depression isn’t just a ‘mood.’ ”

As Delaney tries to make clear, the dissimilarity of mood and depression is the difficult part for many people to grasp. Williams’s suicide is nearly incomprehensible because for nearly 40 years, he seemed to exude unbridled joy. Even his dramatic roles, such as therapist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting and English teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society, were imbued with lightness. How was it possible for a man saddled with demons to move around the stage so weightlessly?

The truth is that Williams spent most of his life shouldering the double burden of mental illness and addiction. He was always forthcoming about his struggles with alcohol and cocaine, and even incorporated his addictions into his stand-up routine. But that didn’t keep them at bay.

In 2006, after Williams went into rehab for alcohol abuse, he explained to ABC’s Diane Sawyer why addiction is the most resourceful of enemies.

“It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m okay.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not okay.”

Throughout his life, Williams often recognized that he needed help and asked for it. But in that last decisive moment, he didn’t. So now the world goes on without its beloved, frenetic jester.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in 17 people lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

If you recognize the symptoms of severe depression in yourself or somebody you know, call Riverbend Emergency Services at 1-800-852-3323. Someone is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And if you think you can handle it on your own, just consider this advice from Delaney: “Get help. Don’t think. Get help.”

The voice telling you that you should kill yourself is not you at all. Mental illness is the most dishonest of killers.

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