The suicide deaths of Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna and comedian extraordinaire Robin Williams reminds us that mental illness affects even those who seem to be the most indomitable. It's also a reminder that even when you have it all, sometimes none of it is enough to keep you alive when depression is a demon that eats at your self-worth, your confidence and your desire to live.
While Williams never hid from the public his struggles with depression and addiction, the death of Hanna hit especially hard to those who have known her, spoke with her, learned from her or asked for her advice.
As Matthew Roy, writing for Seven Days, notes, in public, Hanna was bright, poised and confident, "a beloved figure many regarded as an inspiring role model."
On July 22, Hanna voluntarily committed herself to the psychiatric ward at Fletcher Allen, but three days later she checked herself out. The next day she bought a handgun and the day after that she killed herself in her home. Her husband told Seven Days that Hanna did not want to be in the mental health ward because "She was worried about the stigma associated with that and how it may have an effect on her career."
Last year, 108 Vermonters killed themselves. That's one every four days, a higher rate than the national average.
As Mary Moulton, executive director of Washington County Mental Health Services, told Seven Days, "Suicide reaches all socioeconomic groups, and the emotional pain does not exclude anyone.
The death of Robin Williams speaks to the truth of Moulton's statement, but, as Russell Brand, writing for The Guardian noted, "When someone gets to 63 I imagined, hoped, I suppose, that maturity would grant an immunity to adolescent notions of suicide ...."
But the wisdom we are told comes from age and life experience is not a vaccine against mental illness.
"He obviously dealt with a pain that was impossible to render and ultimately insurmountable," noted Brand. "The chaotic clarity that lashed like an electric cable, that razzed and sparked with amoral, puckish wonder was in fact harvested madness. A refinement of an energy that could turn as easily to destruction as creativity."
But for most people who struggle with depression, who somehow manage to pass us by with a sunny smile and a breezy comment about how wonderful the day is, wrote Diana Whitney on her blog, SpiltMilkVt, depression exists as "a shadow presence ... a current below the bright surface."
Suicide in the United States jumped by 20 percent in the last decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide deaths now outnumber deaths by automobile accident.
And as Tony Dokoupil, writing for NBC News noted, the suicide rate among Americans 45 to 64 has jumped more than 30 percent in the last decade.
"Among white, upper-middle-aged men, the rate has jumped more than 50 percent," wrote Dokoupil.
New diagnostic tests are becoming available to help medical professionals identify those who are suffering from depression and are at risk of committing suicide. One of those is being developed under a Pentagon initiative to reduce the suicide rate among veterans. Another diagnostic tool that holds promise is a blood test that identifies a gene related to a part of the brain that regulates stress, noted Dokoupil.
"Based only on the results of that test researchers were able to predict with 80 percent accuracy which people were considering suicide, or had already attempted it," he wrote.
Locally, the Brattleboro Retreat has initiated its "Stand Up to Stigma" campaign to help shift attitudes toward a more respectful, informed and compassionate way of thinking about mental health that is free of judgment, fear and misinformation. The Retreat and other organizations such as the National Association on Mental Illness are working hard to smash the misconceptions about mental health, emphasizing that mental illness and addiction are physiological maladies that can be treated, just like heart disease or diabetes.
Many of us are not afraid to discuss among friends our own struggles with arthritis, diabetes, cancer and other afflictions, but because of the shame that society attaches to mental health issues, we are often afraid to discuss our struggles with those maladies that affect our thought processes and our perception of life. After all, who wants to be called crazy, a whack job, a psycho or a loony? And who, suffering from depression, wants to be told to snap out of it and stop feeling sorry for yourself? Unfortunately, that's how many of us react to the realization that a friend, a loved one or an acquaintance is suffering from mental illness.
The Retreat's "Stand Up to Stigma" campaign is calling upon all of us to "normalize" the discussion about mental health and to care for people as individuals and not someone suffering from a certain condition.
As U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher has noted, mental illness is treatable and suicide is preventable. But all of us need to dispatch with the hurtful stereotypes and accept that mental illness is not a character flaw but an indication that someone's body chemistry is sabotaging their perception of the world. They need help, not condemnation or scorn.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call that National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.