Why the media doesn’t handle depression well

By Kate Leddy

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Like so many people, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Robin Williams’ suicide this past August. I immediately turned to the countless articles and media coverage that were cropping up by the second, each elaborating on the severe depression of the beloved actor I had grown up watching.

With the news, a delicate and important topic was placed in the media’s hands. According to the World Health Organization, 350 million people are affected by depression. Williams’ tragic death opened up an opportunity to discuss an illness that is still widely misunderstood in our society, as it is unfortunately extremely complicated.

There seemed to be one pressing question that was on the minds of millions of heartbroken fans, family and friends when Williams passed; it’s the same question that must be at the forefront of anyone grieving a loved one’s suicide: why did he do it?

The media immediately took to finding an answer to this question – yes, we know that Williams had been struggling with severe depression, but what may have caused it to escalate to suicide? Dozens of reports came out about money troubles, Williams’ heart surgery, his use of antidepressants and his recent diagnoses with Parkinson’s disease.

While I don’t deny that these may have been factors in Williams’ struggle, it just isn’t that simple. We undoubtedly want to have direct answers and logical conclusions, especially with such a grievous event, but when it comes depression, all of the finger-pointing is causing us to miss a huge talking point.

In the first few days after the news, there were dozens of interviews and reports of friends of Williams, healthcare professionals commenting on the effects of Parkinson’s disease, surgeons elaborating on the heart surgery procedure and discussions about previous actors who have dealt with depression. Yet, there were no psychologists or other professionals to talk about depression in and of itself until much later.

The stigmas associated with depression often paint it as a state of constant sadness, something that often results from a tragic event or experience. Millions suffer in silence with the feeling that they should be able to just “snap out of it” and appreciate what they have.

Fox News anchor Shepard Smith calling Williams a coward just hours after the news broke (and even the wording of his apology afterwards) epitomizes this stigma. He claimed he was simply “wondering aloud” how a successful man like Williams could leave behind three children who loved him dearly in a “fit of depression.” The reality is that when a person is severely depressed, the illness seizes complete control and the victim can see no other option.

I did not learn any of what I know about depression from the media, or reports of celebrities that have dealt with it. I wish that I could say I had. Instead, I learned after a neighbor attempted suicide. I learned when a close friend of mine was considering it. Nothing could make me want the world and myself to understand depression more than having my best friend look me in the eyes and tell me he knows he should be happy and has so much to be thankful for, but that he finds himself trapped in this feeling that is beyond sadness; it is a sheer emptiness, devoid of hope.

This is what the media should first and foremost be discussing if they are choosing to address Williams’ illness: not what caused it, but what exactly it is. This is an opportunity to help others understand that it is a debilitating mental illness that anyone can have, one that can certainly be worsened by harsh factors in life, but that can affect anyone. By putting more focus on who or what is to blame for the suicide, the media is only reinforcing the stigma that a person’s depression is only valid if he or she has a true reason to be feeling that way. Reporters should stop digging for more evidence on who and why before they have finished analyzing what.

In the end, it comes down to blame. Many blame the heart surgery for worsening Williams’ depression, many blame his previous issues with substance abuse, many blame all of these outside factors which put William’s into a dark place in order to take any blame off of Williams himself.

Until we start zeroing in on just the depression itself, though, and put as much effort into analyzing the symptoms, misunderstandings, signs and treatment methods as we are the outside factors that may have contributed to it, then we are missing a huge point that could bring forth more discussion about the illness, a greater awareness of how it can be dealt with and a reduction of the stigmas they leave so many dangerously untreated.

Kate Leddy is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]