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Walter J. Lampa: Robin Williams and depression — learning from tragedy

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Posted: Friday, August 15, 2014 6:33 pm

We recently were saddened and shocked to hear the news that the great comedian and actor Robin Williams, a man who seemed to always be happy and full of energy, had taken his own life by hanging.

Many asked the question: How could something like this happen to a man who seemed to have it all, a great wife, a lovely daughter and sons, a brilliant career, money and an immeasurable amount of energy?

Well, the fact of the matter is that Robin Williams was just one of more than 39,000 people who will commit suicide this year in America. Depression is a killer, a silent killer, as many of its victims suffer alone and don’t get the help that they so desperately need in time to save their lives.

Make no mistake about it; depression is a medical illness just like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, etc. But because the illness happens at the level of the biochemical reactions, and neurotransmitters of the brain and the disease process cannot be visualized with our normal blood tests and imaging techniques, there is this misconception about many of the victims that “it’s all in your head” and “you should just be able to snap out of it.”

One can no more snap out of depression than one can walk on a broken leg or snap out of the arm and leg weakness one experiences after having a stroke.

Here are a few of the manifestations of depression which make it such a potent killer: Aside from having a low mood most of the time, patients with depression also suffer from other disturbing symptoms. Anhedonia, is the inability to enjoy activities which were formerly pleasurable — imagine going through life not being able get any enjoyment. People with depression also have overwhelming and inappropriate feelings of guilt and worthlessness.

And depression robs its sufferers of hope. When a person is in the grips of depression, it appears to that person as if he will never get better and that his life will forever be an existence of low mood, extreme feelings of guilt, worthlessness and joylessness.

Many people with depression also have chronic thoughts of suicide, and they believe that since they will never get better, suicide is the only way out of their mental suffering. I’ve had many patients relay to me that the mental pain of depression is far more uncomfortable and debilitating than any physical pain they have experienced.

The key to surviving depression and getting better is to seek medical and therapeutic treatment. In the last 50 years, we have made great advances in treating depression. While we still need better medications, we do have tools that can make depressed patients feel better and give them hope. Many people who get the proper treatment go on to live full and productive lives with their depression controlled.

But it’s time that we really stopped stigmatizing people with depression as somehow being weak-minded or not strong-willed. We don’t do that to cancer patients or patients with heart disease.

So if any good can come from this tragedy, it’s the hope that a depressed person somewhere will realize that they are not alone in their fight with this disease and get the appropriate help and treatment.

Dr. Walter J. Lampa is a psychiatrist newly located in Lodi. His office is at 1930 Tienda Drive, Suite 204 and his office number is 209-333-9617.

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