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Understanding depression

The suicide of Robin Williams - a universally acclaimed comic genius - struck many baby-boomers hard. They grew up with him, and marvelled at his unique ability to morph into different characters and dialects at the snap of a finger, drawing belly laughs from millions.

Talk show host David Letterman described Williams as a hurricane amid a comedy landscape peopled by mere morning dews. That's how superb his humour was. More amazing was his ability to create characters that made us cry even as we laughed.

People are flummoxed at why such an irrepressibly hilarious guy would want to end his life before his time.

Some are admonishing him for what they see as downright selfishness in taking his own (supposedly) precious life. Others say his action must have been spontaneous - a rash decision made on the spur of the moment, and not premeditated. Acquaintances say that even on the eve of his tragic end, he was talking enthusiastically about future commitments. Some reckon his recent Parkinson's diagnosis brought so much stress that he opted to abscond from its debilitating eventuality.

All these comments have one thing in common - they reflect a total lack of understanding of depression.

Williams' fate recalls another high-profile tragedy, which rocked Washington two decades ago. In 1993, Vince Foster, deputy counsel to president Clinton, calmly drove away from the White House after a daily morning meeting, parked his car at a park in Virginia and shot himself. Just previously he had wrapped up the details of his late father's estate and paid the family's bills as he promised his wife he would. Conspiracy theories and speculations were rife thereafter. People tried to understand why a man described by close friends and acquaintances as "a pillar" and "a rock", someone at the height of his career and with everything seemingly going his way, would cut such a narrow path for himself and leave it all behind in an instant, just like that. They wondered how such a steady and solid man as Foster could stretch until he broke.

Again, the world showed that it did not comprehend the true nature of depression and what it could do to a mind.

Depression does not happen overnight. It is a slow, long and painful passage into darkness, isolation and hopelessness - a suffocating struggle that chips away life's meaning until it loses all sense and joy. The world around closes down, with no exit in view. So the victim thinks about designing their own exit. It's often the case, too, that people suffering from depression are good at hiding it from their loved ones and the rest of us. They feel alien but, like William's character Mork, prefer to remain anonymous, sometimes numbing the pain with medication. Many of them can function fine in daily life, while on the inside, life becomes harder and harder to live because it is hollow, hurting and empty.

The triggers of clinical depression can vary from person to person. But they always lead the sufferers to the same place. They do not understand how other people can manage a smile - such lightness of heart is incomprehensible. Some don't even realise they have depression until they are deep into a dark place. At that juncture, living can be so unbearably tormenting that anything, anything at all, that gets them out of the black, meaningless hole will suffice.

Contrary to the popular belief that people with depression take their own life in a rash and spontaneous decision, sufferers constantly contemplate ways to end their misery once and for all. They plan it, envisaging various means to do the deed. Whether or not they go through with it is a different matter.

Is there anything that might hold them back? In many cases, it's the enormous love someone in their life has for them, a love the sufferer can mentally comprehend and yet is incapable of feeling. But the realisation it's there can draw them back from the edge of the abyss, which beckons as something less painful and less dense than their being.

When US General Colin Powell became a favourite for the presidential race in 1995, his detractors leaked that his wife Alma had suffered from depression (which they gaily described as mental illness) and was a liability that rendered him unfit for office.

Powell immediately called a press conference to show solidarity with his wife. Speaking calmly and succinctly he said that depression was an illness just like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or any other physical ailment. When people were ill, be it in mind or body, he said, they sought medical help. Depression could be treated with medications and counselling, it was curable, and there was no reason to turn the illness into a stigma.

But it seems that many of us cannot help stereotyping, demonising and dismissing those who suffer from this disease. This may be because we do not grasp the true nature of depression. In fact, those who have never suffered from depression will never fully understand what it is. How can a man comprehend hunger, if in his entire life he has never been hungry?

The brash and sharp-tongued Mike Wallace, a former anchorman for "Sixty Minutes" - the popular weekly in-depth and investigative news show on CBS - shocked many when he came out and confessed that he had for a long time suffered from depression. He struggled to overcome it, and he was able to beat it. He also said his depression made him a more compassionate human being.

For a man who descends into the excruciating dark depths in which all hope is extinguished - a place that truly deserves the name hell - and manages to come back, the world is never the same. Humanity takes on greater meaning after he has stood at the edge of the abyss, his heart witness to the razor-thin line between life and death. In the end he is able to embrace the darkness that he knows will never leave.


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