The Weight of Weariness

Depression, sadly, is not something people talk enough about. It is not an ailment that is prioritised, and is still tainted by the stigma of shame

The Weight of Weariness
The tremendous outpouring of grief, disbelief and empathy following Robin Williams’ unexpected death was not isolated to just the US. It was a global mourning for someone larger than life who was able to brighten everyone’s day.

There were different facets to his humour ranging from slapstick, to silly, to mimicry, to witty, to sarcastic, to acerbic. You had to walk really fast to catch up with him. His funny mouth kept up with his brilliant mind leaving us holding our sides and catching our breath. His movies, on TV, his stand up comedy, his guest appearances on talk shows sparkled with his presence and left us craving for more.

He understood that when you laugh, the world laughs with you. The world also loves you more for helping them escape.

He never failed us even when he was failing to hold himself. Falling into depths that only few could understand. His death has cast the spotlight on depression and chronic disease.

Killing me silently

Last year, Aaron Swartz, 26 year old tech prodigy and internet activist, also hung himself, embattled with legal troubles and suffering from depression. In his blog, he wrote, “At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms. As George Scialabba put it, “acute depression does not feel like falling ill, it feels like being tortured … the pain is not localised; it runs along every nerve, an unconsuming fire … even though one knows better, one cannot believe that it will ever end, or that anyone else has ever felt anything like it.”

The economist Richard Layard, after advocating that the goal of public policy should be to maximise happiness, set out to learn what the greatest impediment to happiness was today. His conclusion: depression. Depression causes nearly half of all disability, affects one in six, and explains more current unhappiness than poverty. And (important for public policy) cognitive behavioural therapy has a short-term success rate of 50 per cent.

Sadly, depression (like other mental illnesses, especially addiction) is not seen as “real” enough to deserve the investment and awareness of conditions like breast cancer (one in eight) or AIDS (one in 150). And there is, of course, the shame.

A global malaise

According to a World Health Organisation paper, “Depression is a significant contributor to the global burden of disease and affects people in all communities across the world. Today, depression is estimated to affect 350 million people.” One in 20 people have reported to having a serious bout of depression in the past year.

According to the study, depressive disorders often start in the early years and result in reducing functioning. Robin Williams’ has lit a match to the heated debates on why everyone needs to sit up and take notice instead of sweeping it under the carpet. Suicide claims almost one million lives every year. A steep price to pay considering that it tallies up to nearly 3,000 lives every single day.

According Psych Central, “Researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland used pre-existing data on the prevalence, incidence and duration of depression to figure out the social and public health burden of the condition throughout the world. They found that slightly more than 4 per cent of the world’s population are diagnosed with the disorder.

The study found that more than 5 per cent of the population suffers from depression in West Asia, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean.

The most depressed country is Afghanistan, where more than 20 per cent suffer from the disorder, while the least depressed is Japan, with less than 2.5 per cent.

Depression often shows up in regions with conflict and in the presence of other serious epidemics. Not surprisingly, Afghanistan, Honduras and the Palestinian territories are the three most depressed regions.”

Midlife crisis

Consider these other facts. According to Healthline, depression is most prevalent in people aged between 45 to 64 years. Overall women have higher rates than men. They are twice as likely to have depression and symptoms of depression than men.

Success and sadness

The famous have succumbed and the roster includes Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, Socrates, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Vincent Van Gogh and even Socrates.

But rich or poor, famous or obscure, skinny or not, beautiful or ordinary, depression doesn’t play favourites. Unfortunately, it is not something people talk enough about, it is not an ailment that is prioritised and it is still tainted by the stigma of shame. As if you were given a choice between happy and sad. As if you were held to blame with the voices in your head.

We hope that Williams is wandering the heavens, demons finally at rest and whistling a happy tune like he did in his poignant film, What Dreams May Come.

(Shaku Selvakumar is a US-based marketing and digital communi­cations

expert; and founder of Coeuredge, a digital experience company)


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