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Darkness Visible: Suicide and Depression in Virginia

Danville Register & Bee - 6/17/2018

In the past couple of weeks, the back-to-back suicides of two, high-profile cultural icons - food critic and social anthropologist Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade - focused the nation's attention on what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is the nation's silent epidemic. How, we wonder, could someone as rich and famous as Bourdain or Spade be under so much mental duress they would see killing themselves as the logical way out?

It's not just the rich and famous that depression, this silent killer, targets among us. The Veterans Administration reports that, on average each day, 20 active-duty service personnel or veterans kill themselves. Think about that. Twenty military suicides each and every day. And those 2016 numbers are down slightly from 2014, when the average daily toll was 22 lives lost.

There was a time not long ago, depression was thought to be a moral failing, a character flaw, the result of a lack of belief in a higher power. The stigma attached to mental illness has only slightly improved from the 1980s; indeed, when you think about it, depression is the least socially unacceptable mental illness in our society. Schizophrenia, bipolar disease, panic disorder: Millions suffer in silence because society still tells them "it's all in their heads."

The CDC and the National Institutes of Mental Health estimate that about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population in any given year suffers an extended depressive episode. That's about 3.3 million adults. The number is even worse when scientists estimate how many Americans suffer any mental illness in any given year: 20 percent of the population, or 42.5 million adult Americans.

Suicide.org, a national nonprofit that studies ways to prevent suicide and help those in the grips of depression, estimates that a teenager commits suicide at the rate of one every 100 minutes in this country. It's the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, and about a fifth of all teens experience a major depressive episode before reaching adulthood.

Yet still misperceptions of and ignorance about depression persist.

Depression is not the blues. It's not a "down" day because you got a B+ on that algebra test, not the A you strived for. It's not feeling bummed because you missed out on that new job you interviewed twice for.

Depression is an illness, like cancer or heart disease, that medical science still knows too little about. We do know there are many signs and possible causes of it. In some cases, it may stem from an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain, perhaps caused by high levels of anxiety or massive amounts of adrenaline in the body resulting from panic disorder. There are some studies that indicate there might be a genetic link to depression, especially when depression and suicide run in families. Constant, high-level stress can also wreak havoc with the chemicals in the brain and with thought patterns that are self-reinforcing. When you have your first major depressive episode, doctors say the disease lingers in your body, increasing your chances for recurrences.

Describing what it's like to be in the midst of a depressive episode is almost impossible. It feels as if you're moving in slow motion, caught in a dark, gelatinous goo you're constantly struggling to free yourself from. Virtually all of your energy is burnt trying to keep up a facade of normality for the public, and when you're finally alone, you collapse because you simply have no energy left for yourself. Some sufferers speak of a constant physical pain, while others say they have no feelings whatsoever and are numb to the world. After one prolonged attack after another, this never-ending feeling of non-feeling, suicide can come to be seen as a logical step to end the silent suffering.

There are many community resources available for a person suffering from depression and for family members and friends of someone who is.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255). Text "TALK" to 741741. Visit CrisisChat.org. Available every day of the year, around the clock. You can find a mental health provider at findtreatment.samhsa.gov or MentalHealthAmerica.net/finding-help.

Contact your local health department or social services for resources. Take part in the annual Out of the Darkness Walk to Prevent Suicide to raise funds for local suicide prevention efforts. Reach out to a counselor at school or a minister who recognizes depression is a physical illness that needs medical attention.

Acknowledging the disease, bringing it to the light, is a key step in breaking the silence.


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