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.”

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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.”

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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.

“You don’t want to do your own intervention and push somebody over the edge,” she said, adding that suicide hotlines, manned by trained volunteers and clinicians, can also walk you through the most effective, least damaging approach to confronting a friend or family member in need.

After consulting an expert, tell the person you’re concerned about—in a nonintrusive way—that you’re seeing changes and you care. That may take the form of a letter, a text message or an email, if not a face-to-face conversation, saying simply, “I see things changing, I know you’ve been down and I’m here. If you’ve been thinking about suicide and don’t want to talk to me, here’s a number to call.” It’s OK if the person doesn’t want to talk about it right then and there. But do check back in within 24 hours if you think it’s a severe situation.

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“I think the temptation, especially when folks don’t know exactly what to do, is to drop a line and then give them a wide berth or buffer zone, like, ‘I’m just going to leave this alone until they get themselves together,’” said Price. “But in this situation, that’s the opposite of what they need. Sometimes just knowing there’s a person still thinking about them, still caring about them and wanting to prevent that decision will change the course of their decision-making.”

You cannot save someone who ultimately does not want to be saved, as heartbreaking and bewildering as that is. You cannot shoulder the blame for not making that person’s life worth living. You can, however, express concern. You can initiate a solution. And you can try to redirect what may be a decision made on the spur of despair by the simple act of being involved and present and compassionate.

People experiencing—and, in some cases, truly suffering from—depression aren’t the easiest to love in the midst of their struggle, but they almost always need it the most. Long after we stop talking about Robin Williams, and the conversation about depression gets tucked into niche discussions, we’ll continue to live in an overly connected society where we relate to one another through blog posts and tweets, texts and instant messages, comments and videos, but know only as much about one another’s real lives as we allow ourselves to reveal. We’ll also have just as many opportunities to check in and check in for real.

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Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 800-662-HELP (4357)
National Alliance on Mental Illness: 800-950-NAMI (6264)