We need to talk about depression

Op-ed: It was not cancer that took my daughter from us. It was another terrible disease: depression.

Three years ago I stood in the pulpit of the church where my family had worshipped for more than three decades to give the most difficult talk I have ever had to give — offering reflections on the life and death of my 36-year-old daughter, Libby, who had passed away just a few days before. As I prepared my remarks, Libby's sister and brother encouraged me to speak openly about the illness responsible for her death. If she had died of cancer, they noted, we would not be reluctant at all to talk about her battles with and eventual death from it. But it was not cancer that took Libby from us. It was another terrible disease — depression.

Depression was not unfamiliar to me. I am a clinical psychologist and have devoted much of my research and clinical work to mood disorders. And I have had personal experience with depression as well, having had two serious episodes that required medical and psychological treatment.

As I looked out over the more than 300 people attending the memorial service that evening, I didn't know what type of response to expect to my remarks about Libby's struggles with depression and how she had eventually taken her own life. But I felt strongly that I owed it to Libby and to all those still suffering from depression. It was time to use this dark moment in my life to shed light on this crippling and often lethal illness.

I must confess that I was surprised by just how many people spoke to my children and me after the service to express appreciation for my remarks — their words spoken with sincerity and purpose. The refrain, "we need to talk about depression," was repeated over and over again in these conversations. "We need to talk about depression in our schools." "We need to talk about depression in the workplace." "We need to talk about depression in our houses of worship." "We need to talk about depression in our homes."

I was truly heartened by these comments, and especially moved over the next few weeks when I learned that many of these concerned individuals followed up their words with donations to support the production of an educational video on depression that we chose to title, "We Need to Talk."

Since Libby's death, I have had many occasions to share this video and to speak about depression in educational institutions, religious congregations and workplaces. I have used these opportunities to encourage audiences to view depression as an illness, just as they would diabetes or hypertension, and to recognize that there are effective treatments. I have focused particularly on two of the major obstacles that often interfere with depressed individuals seeking treatment: the stigma still too often associated with depression and the sense of hopelessness that is a central component of depression.

As I have given these talks, I have watched closely and listened carefully to discern the information or examples that have the greatest impact on my audiences. There is usually some interest in the research and clinical reports I provide, but it is clear that the most impactful part of my presentations is when I share my own experience with depression. There is something very powerful about having a professional speak openly, without any sense of shame or embarrassment, about his own struggles with depression and how, with treatment, he has been able to return to a full, active life.

As gratifying as it is when I see that I have helped people by talking openly about my depression, I must confess that I know I have passed up other opportunities where it would have been entirely appropriate and potentially quite beneficial for me to share my own experience. And I have had no reason not to. I know that I can speak candidly in these situations without jeopardizing my career or my most important relationships because my colleagues are fully aware of my mental health history, as are my wife, children and closest friends.

While it is true that not everyone who has had a similar experience with depression can talk about it without concern for their employment or relationships, undoubtedly there are individuals from various walks of life — health care, education, religion, government and the business community — who, like me, have been successfully treated for depression and who could speak openly without fear of harmful repercussions. Imagine the impact we could have if more of those suffering in silence with the pain and despair of depression could hear our stories of how we were able to emerge from the dark, lifeless depths of depression and discover that our lives could once again include feelings of love, joy and hope.

What a powerful force we could be.

W. Daniel Hale is special adviser to the president at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; his email is whale5@jhmi.edu.

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