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Why Family and Friends Miss Signs of Suicidal Depression

In the Time magazine online article, Mary Richardson Kennedy: The Denial of Depression, writer Dominique Browning discusses the reactions of friends and family to the recent suicide of Mary Richardson Kennedy and some of the common misconceptions about suicidal depression.

In particular, she focuses on the sense of surprise some people feel when a loved one commits suicide. In her insightful article, she asks: “Is it possible that friends can be so blind to the depressed person’s suffering?”

As someone who has battled depression off and on for two decades, my answer to that question is ABSOLUTELY. To be fair, the blame for this “blindness” falls on the shoulders of both the depressed person as well as their stunned friends and family. We depressed people are masters of deception. We are experts at fake smiles and forced laughter.

When someone asks how we’re getting along, we tell them we’re fine, or okay or hanging in there. We may admit to our closest, most mellow friends that we’re bummed out. Maybe we’ll even tell them why we’re bummed out. But do we ever admit the truth? Do we ever look someone straight in the eye and say “Actually, I’m suicidal, kiddo. Lately I’ve plummeted from anger to despair to a desire to pack it in. Yeah, yeah, I know I was cracking jokes last weekend at the bar. But that has nothing to do with how I feel. So, will you help me draft a will?”

There are good reasons why we lie and play charades and shuck and jive our way through the pain. When you do tell people the truth, they freak out. They can’t handle it. They panic and want to drag you to their minister, or dial 911 or come over and suicide-proof your house.

Others get pissed off. “MY LIFE SUCKS TOO”, they’ll bark. In fact, their life sucks worse than yours, so they really don’t want to hear anything that will make their life suck more. Most people dash headlong into the cozy arms of denial. “You’ll be okay.” “Try distracting yourself with housework- or your hobbies!” “Hey, have you tried keeping a gratitude journal? I hear those things really work.” Or they say nothing at all.

They pretend you never said it. They hope it’ll just fade away like a disgusting pimple. The replies and reactions vary, but the bottom line is, they wish you’d kept your depressed and suicidal mouth shut.

It’s ironic. People’s reactions to a friend’s confession of suicidal urges tend to reside under the same roof as the character flaws most often attributed to those who commit suicide. Selfishness and cowardice. “How could they do such a thing?” “What about their family?” “Back in my day, they called it The Blues, and everyone had them from time to time. They didn’t just give up.”

Few people have the courage and compassion to calmly accept the truth and crawl down into the cave with you. We victims of despair don’t want to spark drama, guilt and hysteria or be admonished for our inability to count our blessings. We realize that death is scary to those who want to live. And we’ve already heard the stories of people who paint masterpieces with their toes because they lost their arms to a landmine.

We don’t need pity or harsh judgment, and for the moment, we really don’t need to hear your tales of woe, because they won’t make us feel grateful that we’re not you. We want someone to check on us every day and ask us how we’re doing with a sincere desire to know we’re not one step closer to pulling the trigger.

We need friends who will let us feel comfortable enough to cry or sit statue-still and silent, in their calm, supportive presence. We need to know that someone would be truly devastated if we died. That, contrary to our belief, our loved ones would not be better off without us. That’s how you help someone reclaim the strength, self-worth and sense of relevance they need to seek professional help.

But too often, you’ll never get the chance to provide that kind of support, because it was easier to rely on wishful thinking, or tough love, or platitudes, or any of the myriad reactions to shoulders that stay slumped too long and smiles that, upon close inspection, look as false as forty-year-old boobs that don’t sag.

Our pets know when we’re down. Human beings are no less perceptive. We just need to be strong enough to ask for the truth, calmly and discreetly. And when we get that truth, we need to man up and handle it.

Donna Butler is the author of Manifesting Daddy, a novel about one woman’s victory over depression.

Donna Butler

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