Depression is an affliction of the gifted

I certainly did not plan to post this morning, but given the news yesterday about the passing of a great talent, artist, and human being, I thought I would just throw out a few thoughts.

It has been my observation that extremely intelligent people comprise a disproportionate percentage of those who suffer from clinical depression.  Part of our problem in discussing this psycho-physical disorder is the use of a word that has another meaning in common parlance.  A lot of the language we use to address what are science-based phenomena were developed before the science itself came into maturity, often from the 17th and 18th centuries. So, it is easy to misunderstand them.

Scientific breakthrough could significantly alter the treatment of depression

It would not be necessary or appropriate to go on at length about the psychiatric definition of clinical depression (that is easily found all over the internet and I am sure there will be many medical professionals speaking out about it again today, in light of Williams’s passing) but I do want to remind people that they need to act on behalf of a close acquaintance, family member or loved one who shows signs of the disorder.  It is even more acute if that person has been diagnosed.

People with clinical depression should not be left alone when they are suffering an exacerbation or flare of the disorder.  We will find out what happened to Robin Williams, but it is my guess that he must have been alone for too long a period of time, or this could not have easily occurred in this manner. The manner of death appears to be one that would take some time to bring about (and again, I am only going on what the media has reported.  Today we will likely get clarification on this).

Some people who suffer from this disorder manifest symptoms like mania (as in manic-depressive bi-polar disorders), and others by self-medicating with drugs, alcohol and even cigarettes (not that mild use of any of these indicates someone is about to take their own life, let me be clear).

It is my experience that, because this culture does not understand, nor support the admission of psychiatric conditions, those with syndromes like depression will try to mask their suffering, as if they have failed.  They are often bewildered by it and the kind of initial reaction they get and care they do or do not receive, will often make the difference in how they deal with the stresses it causes, for the rest of their lives.

Treatment should be ongoing, for life.  It is no different than any other physiological ‘disease’ and should be viewed and dealt with as such.  There are old drugs that seem to help, like lithium.  Lithium has been around for over 100 years or more and I have never heard of anyone dying from its side effects (although any time you introduce a pharmaceutical medicinal product into a living organism, there will be adverse effects). New treatments are being developed all the time.  A person with this issue needs a caring and up-to-date professional to guide them through the process of identifying the management therapy that is right for them.

On a purely temporary basis, diet can help.  Many times what appears to be depression can be caused by low blood sugar disorders.  Simply changing the diet to a series of small, balanced, protein-enriched meals can even out mood, when this occurs.

Another thing that can help, temporarily, are herbal-based products available over the counter, like SAM-E, St. John’s Wort (be careful here, as it has been implicated in liver dysfunction) and taking a calcium/magnesium multivitamin.  This is just to get past a down or ‘blue’ mood.  Sometimes exercise can help, and of course getting outside in sunshine.  If you are with someone who suffers from bouts that might be a sign of true depression, you can help by staying with them, talking to them, getting them a protein-rich meal (not too heavy, of course), getting them to take a walk in fresh air and even just putting a full-spectrum bulb in a lamp and seating them near it while you converse.

There is no substitute for professional help.  The depressed individual often does not reach out, because affect flattens during these episodes and they truly believe there is nothing that can be done. Or, when they are on medication and feeling better, they assume they no longer need it and often stop taking it, without letting anyone know.  There can be a crash of sorts when the chemical imbalance that triggers flares occurs. Those are dangerous moments.

If it were up to me, every clinically depressed person would have a buddy, similar to the system used, in many substance abuse support programs.

In any case, they shouldn’t be alone.

I will personally miss Robin Williams.  I don’t need to say anything else about him, as others, even President Obama, have said it so eloquently, I wouldn’t presume to tread on that territory.

But I would like to say: not one more.

Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between.  But he was one of a kind.  He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.  He made us laugh.  He made us cry.  He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams. — Barack Obama

Image: salon.com

19 Comments on “Depression is an affliction of the gifted

  1. Thank you for writing this, Beth. So tragic that people with this condition suffer such deep even lethal anguish. My ex was bi-polar and self medicated with drugs for years before he was diagnosed. I can only pray he is getting help now that he is out in the world again. Perhaps Robin Williams’ passing will spur some positive action that will help others…

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    • It is a tragedy, Vera. You have dealt with it first hand. I had a paternal grand-aunt and great grandmother who were bi-polar, at a time when lithium was the only drug. It worked for my grand-aunt, but she would stop taking it. My great-grandmother refused medication and died younger than needed be, although suicide did not occur to either of them. It is needless to lose these people in this way. I am sure a lot of people wished they had known how dire it was — we would all have jumped in to save this man. So, all we can do is look around us for anyone suffering this way, and do what we can. Thank you Vera.

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  2. Thank you. Very”right on.” I have found that also those that seem very funny to the rest of us, also have higher tendencies to suffer from depression.
    I’m sure that a high percentage of us will miss Robin Williams.
    Thank you once again for this blog.

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    • Thank you for adding your sentiments to this, Rebecca. I think someone refers to this — it might have been James Lipton, last night — as the Pagliacci syndrome. Given some of his darker movies, later in his career, it seems to me that Robin Williams was crying out, but apparently above everyone’s head. A genius surrounded by the rest of us; we were clueless that he needed our help. I wish I had just reached out to him myself, somehow.

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      • Robin Williams was not secret about his struggles with Bi-Polar disorder and his addictions. He talked about the emotional experience of playing his darker roles.
        I was watching his comedy special ‘Weapons of self-destruction’, I had to stop because it was too difficult to watch knowing that it all ended in suicide.
        His family reached out to him, he has been married 3x. Bi-polar + addictions causes people to say and do things to their family members that are painful. Sometimes family can’t “reach out” to their loved one because this disorder causes a lot of destruction and leads to mistrust.
        It’s awful that his life ended this way: financial worries and taking undesired acting gigs in order to financially recover.
        He was loved and cared for, but bi-polar makes it difficult for the heart and brain to process this truth.

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        • I am sure that is all true. But, these psychological disorders are little different than diabetes and even though people going through them can be terribly destructive (people in my family said and did horrible things to others who were trying to help them, so I know this is true as both you and Rick have pointed out), they are ill and need constant help. Lifetime help. I don’t know who was there or not there for Robin Williams. I feel sorry for all involved. Especially his kids.

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  3. Beth very interesting comments on your part, thank you. No one really knows the suffering of someone in Mr Williams position except his family and they may not understand the scope. I can’t imagine getting to a place so dark that suicide is the only option. I’ve dealt with serious mental illness with my mother until the day she died and it was a nightmare for me and my wife and children. She was mean and nasty and I often wondered how much was really her personality and how much was a true illness. Most likely it was a compound of the two. I never found out exactly but to be honest it was a huge relief when she passed away. She had multiple mental illnesses and depression and was on many varied drugs and was probably self medicating as well. It was a no win situation and add to that the stigma attached to mental illness and it was all we could do to hang on throughout her life.

    As a result of my personal experience I have a difficult time dealing with someone with mental illness. Maybe the compassion has all been sucked out of me. No doubt that happens to care givers who watch over individuals with physical illness as well. It can become a thankless responsibility in many cases. In caring for parents who passed away with cancer and heart problems it was much different because their capacity to love and express gratitude and offer some emotional love in a relationship continued through their illness. Mentally ill patients can’t always do that so it makes it very hard on care givers particularly those with an emotional stake in the relationship such as a child caring for a parent. I got to the point I had to view my care of my mother as pure responsibility rather than a nurturing relationship where both parties receive love and emotional payment or satisfaction. It wasn’t pretty and I would never want to experience it again. I’m sorry for Mr Williams and I’m sorry for the family he left behind. They may have years of healing ahead of them as they try to piece together a life without a father and a husband.

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    • That is a very serious and difficult situation for a family to contend with, no matter how much help they have from professionals. Naturally, not all those who suffer from mental disorders are suicidal, either. Some people turn the illness outward and inflict pain on others to relieve the pressure and to have company, in some perverse way. But they are all in need of management. I wonder if anyone is ever cured of something that severe. Control of symptoms and behavioral modification of all involved may be the only solution. I am sorry you had to go through this. But I think people who experience this level of adversity, develop empathy as a result and that compassion can be applied to help others.

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    • I think that would depend on who it is that has the problem. A parent is supposed to be taking care of children, and when that is done properly, children are more likely to take care of those parents as they age. When that parent did not, from day one, do enough nurturing, the sequence is damaged. But, if it were a child of yours (heaven forbid) you would likely now have a great deal of experience and understanding drawn from your own suffering with your mother, that you could apply to be supportive of that child.

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  4. Pingback: Depression | Spiritual Lives Of Women

    • Thank you MM. You might want to see my photos of Williams’ Star in Hollywood today. Geoffrey and I went over there to put some flowers on the spot and took pictures. 🙂

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  5. This was a fantastic and supportive post that I am blessed just by reading it. I love the Barack Obama quotation as a conclusion. Exactly!
    I have had a few children in my life, who decided to end their lives. Not my own, but two that were very close to our family, one I babysat and the other a best and dear friend of my oldest daughter. Way too young.
    I have had a son and a brother who sometimes ‘self medicate’ with alcohol or drugs, both are on an ‘even keel’ right now, day to day, I check in on them. My brother scares me with his thoughts. But I always check in on him. Being alone is not a good thing. You have many great points that really show you care and want the ‘truth’ to be given. I feel that the people I knew that did not make it into their adult life, were really on the edge of a cliff, they definitely needed to be watched. One was killed by a train, another, with a bag and duct tape, neither one could be stopped, unless someone were with them 100% of the time. This is a hard and challenging problem My brother says that he sees, “No point” in living sometimes. He also questions, “Why does my life matter?” He is an artist, he is brilliant, you captured a lot of his good qualities in here, Beth. Thank you so much for this!!

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    • Your comment leaves me speechless and somehow more determined to explore this topic, Robin. I am sorry for those people you lost. I lost an acquaintance to suicide twenty years ago. I think of her often. She had been someone who looked up to and admired me. When she killed herself, by slitting her wrists, I was shocked. I wondered if I could have done anything more. She was the girlfriend of a friend of my husbands — very young. I to this day, do not know why she did it. I hadn’t thought about her until I read your comment.

      I have another post upcoming on this subject, because I am convinced that part of this is the sensitivity some people have and cannot deal with in this difficult world. Those people need a lot of support. More on this.

      Thank you for your supportive comments. It makes me feel that I am at least helping to sort all this out.

      And that quote from the President almost made me cry, when I heard it. ❤

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  6. I believe we are all gifted with something unique in this life that we share with everyone we know.

    That being said, depression is a nasty business no matter how badly one suffers. Slight case of the blues one day can be debilitating the next time around. Speaking from experience here, depression recurs and rarely does it visit on ‘our’ terms, ‘our’ time, etc.

    Unwelcome house guest that takes residence up in my psychie, I am thankful that I have my Mom still living and knows the signs of when I start to slip into a bought of depression.

    So one thing I like to do when it hits is to go shopping apparently. Which entails a massive return to said stores for refunds. Got to pay the bills still and I have managed to notice this little feeling before I even drive to a store I have no reason to be in.
    But … yet I still get sick and I still have to battle the other little triggers it brings out in me.

    So HUZZAH! to those that fight it each day and win that day back. And to those that we remember, I light a candle for you every night.

    Thank you Beth for such a thoughtful post. And Robin Williams will be missed greatly from my side of the couch.

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    • Thank you for taking the time to share your experience here. I am sorry to hear that you have to grapple with this but heartened to know that you are managing it and being productive. Since it can be a subtle disorder, it is often mistaken for just being an unhappy person. I know that many people are handling it all by themselves. Apparently, even someone as gregarious as Robin Williams.

      Do what you are doing, it is working, and as you know it is a real syndrome and not your imagination. I am so glad you are interacting with me here and value your friendship as well as your insights. ❤

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