Just in case anyone’s wondering, I’m not going to be doing any personal exposes on my own experience with depression (beyond saying this article is so very yes in hopes of encouraging understanding) as it seems to be all the rage to do these days. At least not just yet. I have beloved friends posting stories on social media, blog sites uploading narratives and Youtube clips of people sharing their journeys through the dark. I deeply respect my friends for being open – we can’t fight the stigma in the silence and stories can help remedy the secrecy, shame and fear associated with mental illness. I have been comforted by the personal stories of people I don’t know as well who’ve made it through hell – multiple times, even – and now have a little light to share around as they build resources for others. And, no, in my opinion, this is not treating Robin Williams or his death as a means to an end as some rightfully warn against doing. Not that mental anguish is the only factor here, but if Mr. Williams really was the kind, caring, big-hearted man many are saying he was, wouldn’t it honor him that we are trying to come together and do something constructive with our shock and sadness in the wake of his loss?
At the same time, I worry that the dangerous, life-threatening ravages of depression are actually going to be trivialized by some because of the attention mental illness is now getting. Equally, I worry about the opposite: that real and dire problems will be overlooked as the cause for distress in favor of an “illness.” I worry that people are going to think that reading stories of strangers under the well-intentioned banner of “You Are Not Alone” is enough to actually, well, not be alone. I worry that people will expect the knowledge that others out there are going or have gone through similar things to actually be enough, to make up for the real, physical presence of people who care. I worry that people are going to think that not being alone is by itself enough to cure mental illness. I worry that people are going to think “you’re not alone” means simply “I struggle, too” when it also means “Even though I have not experienced what you experience, I will still be with you.” I worry that saying, “You’re not alone,” is becoming a substitute for actually going and being with someone, much like Facebook is replacing our real-life relationships and what we think it means to “reach out.”
I worry that we’re distorting what “reaching out” actually looks like, especially since, at the same time as we’re telling people to reach out and put themselves out there for help, we’re ostensibly not teaching people how to catch. I worry that what we assume when we say “reach out” is that we will actually reach someone. I worry that the easy and frequent use of the phrase “reach out” will make those who can’t crawl out of their suffering and lose their battles with mental illness will be seen as not having “reached out,” and who couldn’t simply believe they weren’t alone when maybe, in their real, day-to-day lives, they actually were (like, for example, Robin Williams). No amount of “me too” stories posted online can make up for the real-life isolation and loneliness many people with mental illness suffer on a daily basis.
I’m a bit upset that it took such a high-profile suicide to catapult the conversation about mental illness to the attention it’s always needed. I’m also a bit skeptical, like Mara Wilson is, that the conversation we’re having right now about mental illness romanticizes it and is confusing “trendy” for “common” and that we’re going to forget that talking about it will actually not be enough. That being said, why haven’t we always been talking about being there for each other, building supportive connections and prioritizing relationships, with or without depression? I worry that depression will start to be seen as “cool” or “hip” – I even read a comment recently on one such moving narrative of a journey through depression: “Depression again? Doesn’t everyone have that these days?” rather than be taken seriously.
So I want to encourage others who feel called to speak out personally, especially if it brings healing to you or others because stories, not secrets, stop stigma. At the same time, I feel I need to opt out of sharing (for now) and want to do so not because I aim to disrespect those bravely speaking up, but because I always balk at bandwagons (there was a part of me that really resisted writing about Robin Williams the day after his death) and because, to be honest, I’m still not ready to share. Sometimes it takes a long while in the dark before you can turn it to light and Lord knows, we don’t need more darkness. For those who can take comfort in waiting for the Lord, we know that “God is light, in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). There is no darkness in God, but God is in the darkness, transforming it in mysterious power bit by bit (to make sure God gets it all) to light.