by Kathy Kuhl

The sad death of Robin Williams prompts me to switch topics today. Depression affects more people than we see in the headlines. It can affect our kids, our parents, ourselves.

(I’ll get back to the topic of locating support for your homeschool next week.)

There is still stigma surrounding depression. Every time a gunman is described as someone who “was being treated for mental health problems,” some people will pull away from the help that they or their loved ones need.

But for every person who guns down innocent people, there are many who achieve much while battling great pain: great leaders, artists, writers, actors–people like Robin Williams, who used his voice brilliantly, who made millions laugh.

There seems to be a link between creativity and mental illness. (See the Atlantic’s article last month.) The list of gifted people who have made great contributions to society is too long for this blog: Lincoln, Beethoven, Churchill, Dickens, to name a very few. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) has a list of fifty. Wikipedia’s list of people with major depressive disorders includes hundreds.

Back in 1972, when George McGovern chose Senator Tom Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate, Eagleton didn’t tell McGovern’s team that he had been hospitalized for depression. (Vetting candidates was rare then.) Despite infamously saying he’d back Eagleton “1000 percent,” McGovern later requested that Eagleton withdraw. He did.

I still remember the uproar over his illness, the stigma. I’m not sure much has changed. But it should. Until we stop shying from mental illness as if it were as contagious as Ebola, until we stop acting like it’s a weakness, we are sentencing thousands more to misery.

My formal introduction to mental illness was William Styron’s short book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Styron helped me see how paralyzing depression can be, and helped me begin to understand the dark cloud dimming all joys and the heroism of those who get up one more day without hope or happiness. It helped me understand a friend who had attempted suicide.

That’s the first step. Educate yourself. Visit NAMI’s website. Read Styron if you know someone fighting depression. I haven’t yet read I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help: How to Help Someone with Mental Illness Accept Treatment, by Dr. Xavier Amador, but heard a very good lecture based on it, and I plan to read it.

Second, if you’ve got a family member struggling, attend one of NAMI’s family support group meetings. Find your local group here.

Ever thought “I’m not depressed; everyone takes showers to hide their tears”? If you’re the one feeling the weight of “darkness visible,” keep seeking help. It’s there. Life is worth the fight, whatever lies your poor brain is telling you.

My friend JoJo Tobares blogged on her own struggle this week, which prompted this post of mine.

Speak up for those you love who battle mental illness. Ask your state legislature for needed services and funding. Transform tragedy into action. In my state, Virginia, violence has led to reform. We’ve had two notable tragedies: the Virginia Tech shooting, and the stabbing of state Sen. Creigh Deeds by his son Gus. Gus had been released following an emergency mental health evaluation because a psychiatric bed was not available in the facility. No one checked the other facilities in the area, which did have beds! After stabbing his father repeatedly, Gus took his own life.

These horrible occasions have led to changes. Gus’s father has led the way on needed reforms.  But more needs to happen. We can help.

Finally, as Logan Fisher posted on A Muddled Mother blog, don’t just hand your depressed friend a hotline phone number and back away. Don’t just tell them to keep trying. Reach out. Lend an ear. Set your limits, sure, but don’t join the majority of their acquaintances, who will feel uncomfortable and drop away. As Ann Voscamp wrote:

There’s no guilt in mental illness because depression is a kind of cancer that attacks the mind. You don’t shame cancer, you treat cancer. You don’t treat those with hurting insides as less than. You get them the most treatment.”