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FIRST PERSON: Dying of Depression – Words Are Not Enough

My friend died of depression just before Christmas 2012.

It’s fine if that sounds blunt or unusual, but after two years of grappling with phrasing, I just don’t know how else to put it.

Whenever you run into someone you haven’t seen for years, the topic often comes up, and you clumsily dance around the euphemisms, desperately trying to explain what happened in a sensitive but – for want of a better word – accurate way.

Once the sheer visceral shock of a friend’s suicide sinks in, explaining it to other people is one of the hardest things.

Many other bereaved folk don’t have the same problem. “He died of cancer.” “He had a heart attack.” Simple and to the point. People get it, no questions asked, but suicide is different. I feel that there’s an added layer – a stigma – that makes talking about it different.

There are many familiar phrases we use when talking about suicide. You know them, you’ve probably used them, I’m sure you don’t like them:

“He committed suicide”
“He killed himself”
“He ended it”
“He took his own life”

Without getting too bogged down in semantics, none of these feel right to me. None of them capture the experience or the impact or the legacy.

Suicide is no longer a crime – even though it’s laughable that it was ever considered such – so ‘commit’ definitely doesn’t work. In fact it feeds into the stigma attached to suicide more than any other terms associated with it. Let’s all agree to never use this term again please.

As for the others, well, there is just an overwhelming sense of selfishness in each of these – that suicide is somehow a well-thought-out act; a rational process taken without any consideration to those left behind. I’m not ok with that, and neither should you be. I feel that these terms totally misunderstand and misrepresent the reality of what may lead to someone dying in this way.

I’m positive, though, that over the last two years I have used all of these phrases in various contexts to various people. Partly because I haven’t been thinking straight, but mainly because I’m struggling for an alternative. And that’s something that I feel will only materialise when people get a better sense of the cause of so many tragic suicides. That’s why, for me, saying someone “died of depression” is the closest I can get.

I imagine a world in the hopefully-not-too-distant-future where depression is taken as seriously as cancer. A world where it’s treated like a real, physical disease. A world where – yes – it’s valid to say “unfortunately he died of depression” and people just get it.

Because that was the cause. It was as much an exterior affectation as cancer or diabetes or heart disease. He didn’t decide to take action to end his life. He was as much a victim of something outside of his control as anyone else. Since control seems to be such a recurring theme in suicide, it’s interesting to view depression this way.

You would never hear someone say: “He died of cancer? But how could be leave his wife and child behind?” or “Pneumonia, you say? I think he just needs to pull himself together.” So it speaks again to the lack of knowledge and understanding still prevalent that often you might hear this reaction to depression: “Cheer up mate, it might never happen!” or “Man up and get on with it, son.” Somehow it’s easier for people to deal with a physical – rather than mental – condition, but just because you can’t see depression, doesn’t make it any less life-threatening.

Of course, anyone can feel a bit down or tired for a day or two – stress at work, late nights, whatever – but that isn’t clinical depression. You can ‘snap out’ of a rubbish afternoon where you’ve accidentally deleted that urgent 10-page report you’ve been working on for a week. You can’t ‘snap out’ of clinical depression; the kind of hopelessness that builds up inside and can feel like an expanding black hole. Depression is not about being happy or sad. In fact it has almost nothing to do with happiness, or lack of it. It is about hopelessness and despair. A very different prospect to feeling ‘a bit sad.’

There can be old-fashioned steadfastness that still treats anything emotional or mental as a general weakness in some way, particularly in men. Depression can be filed away in the same category as ‘not going to the pub to watch the football because it’s your wife’s birthday,’ and that’s why for so many men it’s just easier to internalise it and let it build up silently inside.

But the tide is changing. Increasingly more so, people are noticing both the mental and also the physical manifestations of the myriad conditions and complications that we group under the broad heading of ‘depression.’ Scientific research even suggests that there might be a link between depression and physical illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis. That’s easier to understand isn’t it? You know where you stand with RA, right? Sorry, poor choice of words, but you know what I mean.

Somehow that ability to focus on the physical cause makes empathy so much easier. All of a sudden, personal responsibility is shed in some way; a person who’s depressed can no longer just ‘liven up a bit,’ because there’s something causing it. Something that could strike anyone at any time.

It would help if men were honest about it too. It needn’t be tough or embarrassing to say that you’re feeling down, or that such-and-such has really upset you. A guy will always mention – always – if he’s got a bit of a cold, so why not that he’s been feeling depressed for a week now and hasn’t been able to shake it?

Accepting that depression is a real part of everyday life is a big victory, and recognising that it could affect any of us at some point in our lives is another. With that in mind, hopefully Society (capital ‘S’) will continue to understand that suicide isn’t a crime, or a cop-out, or a weakness, or a joke; it’s the all-too-real result of depression run rampant. The tragic end to what can be a chronic, but ultimately treatable, illness.

For many years I lived with my friend without realising he was dying; slowly but surely, day after day. Now I believe I truly understand that he died of depression, not by his own hand.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article or in the comments below, are not those held by CALM or its Trustees unless stated, and liability cannot be accepted for such comments. We encourage friendly and constructive debate, but please don't share personal contact details when commenting and exercise caution when considering any advice offered by others. We don’t allow abusive, offensive or inappropriate comments or comments that could be interpreted as libellous, defamatory or commercial and we will remove these without warning as and when we find them.

9 Responses to this article

  1. I think what you said is spot on, and so very moving. Any loss is deverstating no matter what circumstance it was. Your friend just fell victim to his depression and that is so sad. The stigma must stop, and people like yourself who share their stories can only strengthen the fight to end the horrible stigma. My greatest respects to you

    GazzP 26th January 2015 at 11:21 pm
  2. As a sufferer of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) I have psychotic episodes that 50% of the time will end in a suicidal act…. You are a credit to your friend and I respect you. Stigma and ignorance is a serious problem when dealing with suicidal thoughts…. It can and in some cases will turn thoughts to acts of suicide. Enough is Enough its time wakeup and listen to us.

    tony 30th January 2015 at 3:06 am
  3. This article is so eloquent and true that it helped me with my own depression and how I view others that I have lost to depression. Thank you.

    therecoveryletters 31st January 2015 at 11:03 am
  4. Ive been suffering from manic depression from i was 17 as a result of things that happened to me. Im been feeling very badly depressed this last year. I feel im in a dark tunnel and cant find light. Im on tablets for it. But they only help a bit. Ive been crying a lot and feeling very low. I lost 3 members of my family and i have been getting worse. I feel alone even with family around me. I feel drained of energy. Tears just keep coming. I have lost interest in everything at the moment. I dont feel happy . I have bad thoughts which are getting worse.i feel worthless. But i cant get help from anyone. My husband is great. He trys to help me. Ive having been eating and sleeping. But i cant get help anywhere. I suffer from panic attacks and epilepsy. I just cant get out of this darkness:-(

    maggs24 31st January 2015 at 3:11 pm
  5. its sounds like you have got clinical depression maggs24 i feel exactly the same way i also feel out of control at times, i have difficulty focusing on even the smallest of things, little things become huge just another problem added to the mix i feel that all i want is to live a normal life i spend a lot of time trying to resolve all the problems that crop up when really i would rather just like to relax and live , i feel very bitter towards most people and don’t form relationships with anyone, i can be very hostile to people its like warding them off in the past most experiences with people i have had apart from my nearest and dearest have all turned sour like neighbours they always end up being assholes even if it starts off ok now i really don’t want to associate with any of them i don’t want the shit any more, like now my grandson is being bullied at school and the schools answer to this ?? that kid has just been made ” star of the week ” even though last week he said to my grandson im going to burn your house down and guess what we live in a nice area you couldn’t make it up, so now with his mums approval im just going through the ” motions ” to get them reported to ofsted as far as im concerned f**k them, Ive given up talking to organizations as that’s the easy way out for them just get the letters sent. To me people knowing you and getting too friendly seems to open a door to as the saying gos ” familiarity breeds contempt ” its so true, my daughter is getting the same way we are both fed up of what we percieve and what has certainly been our experience of a sick society that seems to generate nothing but problems is this it ??

    mad as hell 1st February 2015 at 10:41 am
  6. hi guys, thank you for all your kind words. it means a lot that people have responded so positively to what I wrote. be strong, and please, if you ever feel really low, talk to someone! peace, love and unity – gavin x

    gavinsfinney 11th February 2015 at 11:42 am
  7. Very intuitive I lost my brother two years ago, he died to of depresstion. X

    Mickeywildman 23rd February 2015 at 8:14 pm
  8. Really well put Gavin.
    I’m sorry to hear of your friend’s death and know it is hard to deal with for you. I have been in a similar situation and beat myself up for years thinking i could or should have helped him. I have also suffered with depression and have been unable to talk about it. The person closest to me thinks it is just a selfish thing to do and wouldn’t understand if I tried to talk to her about it. Fortunately, it has been my children who kept me from “ending it”. Ironically, the press surrounding Robin Williams’ death helped me to understand that I was not being weak and I actually had a problem. I still haven’t been able to discuss it with anyone, but feel more able to manage it now I have more of an understanding of it.

    Ian102 24th February 2015 at 1:41 pm
  9. Thank you for sharing what are very difficult feelings and thoughts to express Gavin. I also lost someone to depression and whilst it does get easier to handle as the years pass it never ever gets easier to accept, because there is always another way.

    For those in a difficult place right now, there is ALWAYS someone who is ready to listen.

    Look for us, find us and use us.

    Dying of depression can be prevented because there are so many people out there who are ready and able to help.

    Charlotte2012 14th April 2015 at 7:55 pm

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