The report that Jesse Jackson, Jr. may be receiving treatment for clinical depression, and his office’s apparent reluctance to confirm it, reminds me that, despite progress in awareness and sensitivity, mental illness continues to retain a stigma, especially among men. It also reminds me that depression can strike any demographic, regardless of race, age, gender, orientation, or financial status.
I first wrote about my battle with depression in an April 2010 post on my Open Salon blog. I was more nervous about clicking “publish” that morning than I usually am. Although I had been receiving treatment for two years, and the worst of it was a distant dot in my rearview mirror, I had not discussed the subject with anyone besides my doctor and my immediate family. I was not sure what the response would be.
I received many warm comments, which gratified me. What surprised me was the number of private messages I received from Open Salon members who told me about their own battles, which they were reluctant to discuss in public. (There was a similar response when I posted another piece a year later.) Even now, I occasionally receive, out of the blue, a message from someone who has stumbled upon one of those old posts. It confirms my belief that, despite America’s wealth and supposed greatness, this nation contains an awful lot of privately unhappy citizens.
However, I was especially startled by what happened offline. In the days following my post, a good friend and a relative both told me that they were being treated for depression. Although I had spent a fair amount of time with both people, I hadn’t had a clue about either’s illness.
It reminded me how diligently I had striven to hide my despair from everyone outside my home. During that time, I had shunned nearly all social engagements and when forced to interact, as at work, I made a strenuous effort to appear sociable though I did so on autopilot, like a Broadway actor performed the same script for the thousandth time. I honestly don’t know whether my true condition was visible to them or not, but I know the quality of my work decreased considerably.
I also have no idea to what extent, if any, there is a genetic predisposition toward depression. My father suffered from it, especially during his retirement years. I can’t confirm if it goes back further than that; I hate to delve into stereotypes, but my father was descended from a line of hard-drinking Irishmen (my dad didn’t drink much) and I don’t know if their drinking was a response to, or a cover for, deep unhappiness.
I have been gathering notes with the idea of writing a book about battling depression, not because I think there is money in it – I don’t think the Fifty Shades of Gray lady has anything to worry about – but because, with the notable exception of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, I have found much of the literature on the subject wanting.
Many of the people who have discussed their depression in print have had other problems (i.e. bipolar disease) or significant traumatic triggers (childhood abuse, the unexpected loss of a loved one, a precipitous collapse of one’s career or financial status). In my case, however, my childhood was fairly serene and my adulthood was trauma-free, and I believe that is true for many depression sufferers. While I think it’s wonderful that celebrities like the late Mike Wallace addressed their depression in print, I wonder if some of their stories from a life of privilege make depression less relatable, not more.
There are many topics for argument at another time: why Americans seem more prone to depression than any other nation; whether we are being overmedicated; whether current health coverage for mental health treatment is sufficient. What can’t be argued is that nobody should suffer in silence. Seek help and support from your loved ones. If your desolation persists for more than a couple weeks, please consult a mental health professional. And I can’t emphasize this enough: if you are thinking of harming yourself, seek help immediately.