To one degree or another, most of us are mourning the loss of Robin Williams. His appeal was incredibly far-reaching and almost all of us count one or two (or more) of his movies among our favorites. But according to Graeme Cowan, for some people this tragedy won’t just result in a passing sense of sadness—celebrity suicides can promote feelings of deep despair in those who are already vulnerable.
“Actually, one of two things can happen,” says Graeme Cowan, author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder.
“All the attention around depression, mental illness, and suicide can lead at-risk people to finally seek help. Or two—and this is the dangerous part—it can cause them to lose hope and give up. “People think, If someone like Robin Williams, with all his money, success, and fame, can’t beat depression, how will I ever be able to?” he adds. “It’s easy to see why they might decide there’s no point in fighting anymore. I felt that way myself at one time—but now I am 100 percent certain that we can all come back from the black hole.” Cowan knows just how debilitating depression can be.
His own five-year walk through darkness included not one but four suicide attempts. (“My doctor told me I had the most severe depression he’d ever seen,” recalls Cowan.) In the end, after trying more than 23 medications and many other kinds of treatment, he found his way out.
Depression and other mental illnesses are as widespread as they are misunderstood and stigmatized. In fact, according to the International Bipolar Foundation, one in four people have a mental illness and 800,000 people commit suicide each year. Back from the Brink makes it very clear that depression has no economic, class, or cultural boundaries.
With a foreword by Glenn Close, the book features interviews with people from all walks of life, including former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy, Google’s Director of Public Policy Bob Boorstin, former NFL player Greg Montgomery, and more. (A free excerpt can be downloaded from www.IAmBackFromTheBrink.com.)
So what if you are one of the 25 million or so people who grapple with depression? First, says Cowan, realize you are far from alone. Second, reach out for the help you need. Here are a few tips for seeking help:
• If you’re in immediate trouble, call a hotline or reach out online. First, if you are thinking of harming yourself, call a suicide crisis hotline. For example, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is: 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
Alternatively, if you prefer to put your thoughts into words, consider an online depression forum, where you may register and post anonymously and receive public and private replies from others who are depressed or have suffered from depression and can offer mutual support and advice. PsychCentral has a good list of depression forums. In addition, Cowan’s own Back from the Brink Facebook group and LinkedIn (work-oriented) groups also contain supportive communities who are open and share their stories.
• Tell someone. It can be a family member, a friend, or anyone else you feel comfortable with—just don’t suffer in silence. You don’t have to formally announce that you feel like you have clinical depression. Indeed, such an approach might intimidate the person. Instead, suggests Cowan, you can simply say that things have been a bit tough for you lately and that you’re struggling to cope.
• Find a good support group. There is nothing like being able to talk with people who really understand what you are going through—fellow travelers—those who also live with depression or bipolar disorder. There are specialist depression or bipolar groups and those that support all mental health challenges.
Cowan suggests considering the following three good questions when choosing a group:
Is the group leader empathetic and caring and able to facilitate a supportive environment?
Does the group run meetings in a way that suits your style and follow good mental health principles?
Is the group committed to encouraging people to not only discuss their problems, but also to take action?
• Read the stories of others who suffer from depression. Reading the documented struggles of others from all walks of life can help provide you with a sense of both perspective and scale. Not only are you not alone—many more people are afflicted than you may have initially thought!
“My own book contains stories of people from different backgrounds and how depression or bipolar disorder affected them and what they did to manage the illness,” says Cowan. “You may also find optimism and inspiration from the way in which some of those interviewed have turned depression into a foundation for a thriving life, or have used their own experiences as the basis for advocacy to help inform and support others.”
“I truly hope this tragedy will push people to seek help who otherwise may not have,” he adds. “The more we talk about depression, the more we’ll come to understand it—and the more we understand it, the better we’ll get at treating it. In the future I hope we’ll see that Robin Williams’ death opened the door for a dialogue about depression. Perhaps that can be his final gift to us.”
About the Author: Graeme Cowan is the author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder . He is also a speaker who helps people build their resilience, well-being, and performance. Despite spending most of his career as a senior executive in Sydney, Australia, with organizations like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and A.T. Kearney, Graeme had struggled with depression for more than 20 years. Graeme reemerged with not just a best-selling Australian book series to his name but a new attitude toward the way individuals approach recovery.