What I wish people knew about depression

A man walks past a mural depicting the late actor Robin Williams in Belgrade, Serbia, Aug. 13. Williams, who had sought treatment for depression, committed suicide two days earlier. (Reuters/Marko Djurica)

"Soul Seeing" editor Mike Leach asked me to write on what I wish people knew about depression in light of Robin Williams' suicide. Here is what I wish for.

I wish people knew that the soul of someone who dies of suicide is as perfect as the moment God created it, that depression is an involuntary shadow that hides their true identity.

I wish people would offer those who struggle with depression the same compassion they offer to friends with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, breast cancer or any other socially acceptable illness, that they would question those discriminations and judgments reserved for disorders that fall under the umbrella of "mental illness."

I wish people knew that a depressed person is capable of fake laughing for two hours through a dinner only to go home and Google "easiest ways to get cancer"; that most depressed persons deserve Academy Awards for outstanding acting; and that it can be practically impossible to pick up on the desperation and sadness in a person who wants so badly to die, because chances are she is the one cracking jokes in a crowd.

I wish people knew that the worst part about depression is the sheer loneliness, the inability to express the anguish that rages within, and that the smiley-face culture we live in worsens that loneliness because depressed persons are so scared to tell the truth.

I wish people knew that the hardest thing some persons will ever do in this lifetime is to stay alive, that just because staying alive comes easily to some, it doesn't mean arriving at a natural death is any less of a triumph for those who have to work so very hard to keep breathing.

I wish people knew that taking one's life can feel like sneezing to a severely depressed person, that it can be a mere reaction to the body's overwhelming message, that after fighting a sneeze for years and years, some people simply can't not sneeze anymore, that they should not be condemned or demonized for sneezing.

I wish people knew that the best thing you can do for a person who suffers from depression is to believe her.

I wish people knew you could be grateful and depressed at the same time, that gratitude can coexist with a mood disorder.

I wish people knew that depression is complex, that it is a physiological condition with psychological and spiritual components, and therefore can't be forced into any neat and tidy box, that healing needs to come from lots of kinds of sources and that every person's recovery is different.

I wish people knew that depressed brains looked different on high-resolution X-rays; that when experts scanned the brains of depressed people, they discovered that the front lobes of the brain displayed lower activity levels than those in non-depressed patients; that there are breakdowns in normal patterns of emotional processing; that depression can be associated with the loss of volume in parts of the brain and can inhibit the birth of new brain cells, which is why renowned psychiatrist Peter Kramer believes it is the "most devastating disease known to mankind."

I wish people knew that millions of people don't respond to medications, and that while brain stimulation technologies offer hope for treatment-resistant depression, these persons are dealing with a different kind of beast altogether and should never be blamed for their chronic illness.

I wish people knew how essential diet was to treating depression, but that you can eliminate gluten, dairy, caffeine, alcohol and sugar from your diet -- you can exist on green smoothies -- and still be depressed; that fish oil, vitamin B12, and a good probiotic could very well improve your mood, but they aren't magical elements.

I wish people knew that the endorphins from exercise are as close as a depressive will get to an anesthesia for pain, but that it's possible to swim 5,000 yards a day or run 7 miles a day and still be suicidal, that a sad swimmer can fill up her goggles with tears.

I wish people knew that depression wasn't something that can be cured by participating in a 21-day meditation series with Eckhart Tolle or a year of yoga classes, and that although mindfulness efforts can certainly help, it's possible to have consistent, chronic death thoughts even after years of developing a meditation practice.

I wish people knew that sometimes depression is triggered by something and sometimes it's not, that sometimes one small thing is needed to pull a person out of darkness, and sometimes everything is unable to, that sometimes the only thing you can do is to wait for symptoms to subside.

I wish people knew that depression comes and it goes, and in its ebb and flow are found pockets of peace that can sustain a person for the journey.

I wish people knew, more than anything else, that there is hope.

Beyond every action imaginable, there is hope.

In reaching beyond the self without fear to others who understand.

In sharing the familiar yet unique story of one's illness with someone who knows.

In finding purpose and meaning.

In gently turning one's pain to love and service.

[Therese Borchard is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety, and blogs at everydayhealth.com, where this column first appeared in a different form.]

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