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08/12/2014

No Laughing Matter

Nanette Elster, JD, MPH

Like many people around the world, I was shocked to hear about the death of Robin Williams. An Academy-award winner, brilliant comedian, and the host of Comic Relief, he was beloved by millions. I can’t help however think about how tragic it is that it took his terrible suicide to cause our country to recognize the pervasiveness and damage of depression. Recently, the media has saturated us with stories about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We can all engage in discussions about Ebola ranging from ethics to economics. But Ebola, while a terrifying and deadly disease, has killed about 3000 people over the last 4 decades according to statistics from the World Health Organization. Yet, when it comes to suicide, which according to the CDC resulted in nearly 40,000 deaths in 2011 alone, we cannot engage in any meaningful discourse that rallies a similar call to action. Is it because this topic hits too close to home? Is it because of the stigma of mental illness? The victim blaming? Or, is it more the result of helplessness? Whatever the reason, we need to step up and work together as healthcare providers, lawyers, policy makers, ethicists, journalists, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, siblings, children, clergy, and friends to confront what is clearly a public health issue. We need to stop looking for fault and start looking for solutions.

I have watched friends and family members suffer with depression, some getting help and thriving and others languishing and not even surviving. For those of us who have lived with the experience of a loved one’s depression, we know the pain, the frustration, and, at times, what feels like futility. But enough about us. What about the pain, frustration and futility of someone who is depressed, so much so that he or she will not be able to live with it?

As hard as it may be to teach and learn, empathy may be the first step in supporting those with depression. Ridding our discourse of pejorative phrases like “it’s all in her head,” or value judgments such as “if only he’d just quit drinking,” might be small steps in supporting those with depression so they might be able to access the help that they need. Robin Williams is known for making us laugh through the many roles he played on television and film, as well as his countless stand-up routines. Now he has brought many to tears through his tragic loss, but this collective cry may be just the impetus to finally raise awareness of mental health such that it becomes as integrated into primary health care as blood pressure or blood sugar levels. After all, depression is no laughing matter.

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