Don’t Be a Bystander to Depression and Suicide

The death of comedian Robin Williams has opened up a discussion about issues shrouded in secrecy and shame—topics that need an audience in the black community.

Comedian Robin Williams in 2011
Comedian Robin Williams in 2011 Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

There’s an ironic tragedy that accompanies the death of someone who brought so much good to the lives of others but could not maintain the balance of joy in his own.

Robin Williams journeyed through the bulk of his 63 years heart first, making people laugh and giving to causes he cared about deeply. He was a humanitarian and, more important, a human.

As gregarious as Williams was professionally, he was also a person who, according to friends and family, had been wrestling internally with the weightiness of depression. His apparent suicide was an initial shock, then an almost immediate platform—albeit a dismal and unfortunate one—to validate the import of mental health. The opportunities to discuss an issue that remains shrouded in secrecy and shame are precious. Depression has the world’s ear right now, and black folks in particular should be listening.

Somewhere, at this very moment, a mother or cousin or brother or bestie or girlfriend is witnessing the emotional and psychological decline of a loved one and feeling powerless to stop the downslide. There are as many causes of depression as there are people struggling with it: money, family, work, health; purpose—finding it and following it; along with unresolved issues and fresh, burgeoning ones. It can be the culmination of everyday factors or the aftershock of a singular, life-altering event.

Social burdens, too, are a large and underacknowledged cause for the increase in depression among black folks, especially in urban communities where stress is heightened and resources are limited. In a study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder affected almost 50 percent of black men and women being treated for trauma exposure, ranging from car accidents to deaths in the family to physical and sexual assault. Life in general is hard. Life for us tends to be harder. It’s not a badge of honor or an excuse for self-pity. It’s a statistical fact.

“The dip in the economy has had a lot to do with [depression], too,” explained Jasmyn Price, a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C. “That means less social services, which means less food stamps, which means more stress, which means more frustration in a relationship, which means more depression, more weight gain, more suicide. All of that goes together.”

Minor bouts with sadness and despondency are normal. Family and friends should take action, however, when a loved one’s depression progresses to the point where the person stops grooming him- or herself; makes drastic changes in his or her appearance—losing a lot of weight or rapidly gaining it, for example; or pulls away from activities he or she used to enjoy.

“You’ll also notice this when people are depressed and they may be considering suicide,” Price warned. “Before they were crying and always sad, and there was nothing you could do to cheer them up. Usually, when they choose suicide as a serious option, they become eerily calm. They’re like, ‘I’m good because I have a plan now.’”

They may also become more reckless, engaging in uncharacteristic behavior that’s harmful to themselves in one way or another. “All of a sudden, she’s randomly sleeping with everybody or he’s running up credit cards,” added Price. “They continue digging the hole and making things worse without concern for the consequences.”

In our community, there’s been increasingly public conversation around destigmatizing mental-health treatment and making therapy the new normal. Even if you aren’t seeking it for yourself, Price strongly suggests consulting with a psychologist or licensed professional before approaching a loved one about his or her suspected depression.