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Suicide is depression’s deadliest symptom: op-ed

Updated: August 12, 2014 5:16PM

When someone dies of cancer, the obituary usually notes that the person lost his or her “long battle” with the disease. With death by suicide, the “long battle” that preceded it is often ignored—the act itself is the focus.

When I learned that Robin Williams died on Monday, I didn’t just hear “suicide” as the cause. I understood that he lost what must have been a very long battle with severe depression. I knew this because I—along with an estimated 350 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization—am in the midst of such a daily battle.

Many people will say that suicide is the cowardly way out. They see it as a selfish choice. Sure, on some levels it is. I’ve seen the way it impacts friends and family of the deceased. It’s unimaginably crushing. But what most people miss is the fact that suicide is a deadly symptom of a killer disease.

Any time I hear of someone committing suicide, losing their battle with depression, I’m heartbroken. I’m also terrified because I’m reminded that this is what I’m battling. This is the symptom that I’m working every single day to avoid.

My disease has ruined existing relationships. It’s kept me from creating new relationships. It’s kept me from taking risks and having fun.

I remember as a sophomore in college a friend of mine wanted to take me to a St. Louis Cardinals game to meet her father, who was a coach on the team and one of my baseball heroes growing up. I wanted so badly to go. It would have been physically easy to get up from my bed, put on some clothes, get in the car and go. I couldn’t do it. My depression had me paralyzed—racked with fear, insecurity, self doubt and self loathing. I told her I was sick, couldn’t go.

This scene has repeated itself throughout my adult life in some form or another.

On multiple occasions, my disease has ruined what my wife has referred to as “a perfectly good evening.” She deserves a medal for enduring my inexplicable mood swings, random shifting of opinions and general grumpiness.

But I know these things are nothing compared this dark cloud—those awful thoughts—that lurk. For the most part, people would probably see me as a well-adjusted, extroverted person with a solid job. A fine contributor to society’s greater fabric. In other words, I’m just like nearly every other depression sufferer.

I’ve grown to understand my triggers, the events (often out of my control) that will send me into a crippling depressive episode. It can something I eat; it can be the weather. As embarrassing as this sounds, it can happen in the wake of a Missouri Tiger loss on the football field.

In those moments, I focus on the things I can control. Sometimes during these episodes, I realize that I there’s not a single thing in my life I can control except for my breathing. And so that’s what I do. I focus on the next breath. And the next. And the next.

My mother, who is CEO of an outpatient mental health center Oak Park. Ill., taught me that there isn’t a single cure for depression. Medication is the answer for some. Therapy is the answer for others. Some people self-medicate by running marathons or standing on a stage delivering jokes or using drugs and alcohol.

There’s no cure for this deadly disease. There’s only treatment.

I’ve always relied on my friends and family, who seem to be able to inherently sense when I need to be picked up. I’m unbelievably fortunate in this regard. But this means I’ve had to be very honest with them about my condition. It takes a leap of faith and some difficult conversations. For me, talking about depression is the best way to prevent its deadliest symptom.

My hope is that someone reading this will understand that they’re not alone. Treatment awaits. It starts with talking about it.

Kevin Allen is a former Web producer and blogger for the Sun-Times.

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