Silence Is Fatal: Fighting Stigma About Depression and Suicide in Our Communities

depressed man

By Associate Professor Leo Cabassa

Every day approximately 108 people commit suicide in the United States, resulting in 39,000 deaths annually. These tragedies are preventable with medical treatment and support from family and friends.

The recent death of comedian and actor Robin Williams has brought the reality of depression and suicide into our homes. Many suffer in silence for fear of stigma and taboo related to these issues in our families, communities and our society. It takes a tragedy of an admired public figure to talk about these medical conditions.

Depression if it is not treated can be fatal. It is something that slowly destroys a person’s hopes, thoughts, and behaviors. For many, depression is like being in a dead-end street; in a labyrinth of despair consumed in a cloud of anguish, anxiety, and pain with no end in sight, no matter how much you try.

Depression does not discriminate; it affects men and women of all ages, races, ethnic groups, sexual preferences, levels of education, religious beliefs and all kinds of social classes; from the richest to the poorest. Depression is not a deficiency of character or personal weakness; it is a serious medical condition that can be prevented and treated with medications and psychotherapy.

As a mental health professional who has not only helped and studied people suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts but that has also experienced the despair of being depressed and thinking about taking my own life, the most important thing I've learned from these experiences is that silence is fatal and that there is hope in looking for help and support.

But it is not easy to break this silence. It is painful to express oneself or listen to the anguish and despair of loved ones afflicted with depression and suicidal thoughts. We must talk about depression and suicide and lend an ear to someone that is consumed with depression and not let the person swallow and burry themselves in their own anguish.

The first step to help someone suffering from these conditions is to be willing to listen to them. This is one of the strategies recommended by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in their new campaign #iwilllisten. I invite you to visit this page, hear the stories of people who have suffered and recovered from depression and other mental illnesses, and make the promise to listen. By breaking the silence and talking to our loved ones, our families, friends, and coworkers about depression and suicide we can help someone in need and fight the stigma and fear that prevents many people from seeking help.

The above is a translated version of an article that was originally published in Spanish in the Science Section of El Nuevo Día (22 August 2014), the newspaper with the highest circulation in Puerto Rico. To read the original Spanish-language article, titled "El silencio es fatal: Hablando podemos combatir el estigma sobre la depresión y el suicidio en nuestras comunidades," please go to its page on Ciencia PR, of which Professor Cabassa is a member.

Image: "A Portrait in Darkness," by Sean McGrath (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

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