I remember those early days of June, a few years ago, perhaps around 2018. The world was shocked to hear about the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and renowned chef Anthony Bourdain. It left everyone questioning why successful, affluent individuals would choose to end their lives. While each person carries their own reasons for this tragic decision (even their loved ones were stunned by Spade and Bourdain’s choices), there was a common thread between their suicides: depression.
The Multifaceted Nature of Depression
Andrew Solomon, a National Book Award winner for his work on depression, once posed the question: is depression a chemical issue (caused by a lack of certain chemicals in the body, requiring medication), a psychological issue (stemming from dissatisfaction with life and lack of motivation), or a philosophical issue (as famously asked in Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be or not to be, that is the question”)? Depression, it seems, may encompass all of these realms. Due to its complex nature, scientists, psychologists, and experts continue to debate the causes and solutions for this condition.
Depression often springs from deep loneliness within a person, a pain that sometimes even their closest friends and family cannot fully understand. To an outsider, many depressed individuals may appear to be enjoying a good life, but deep within, they carry unsharable pains. These pains grow day by day, eroding them from the inside until they might eventually arrive at the decision that ending their life seems preferable to continuing it. As the character from the TV series “13 Reasons Why” once said, “The best way to stop feeling pain is to stop feeling anything at all.” People may die not because they desire death, but because they cannot find a reason to continue living in agony.
However, if someone claims that depression is merely a psychological issue and overlooks a serious truth: depression significantly impacts physical health. Observable symptoms of depression include weight loss due to loss of appetite or uncontrollable weight gain from excessive eating, disheveled appearance due to lack of sleep or excessive sleeping, constant fatigue or frequent crying, heightened agitation, and difficulty maintaining composure. Not to mention the numerous ways in which depressed individuals may engage in self-harm. Severe depression can lead to impaired cognitive function and behavioral control, as well as the development of other mental disorders such as hallucinations, delusions, anxiety, or even psychosis. One of the most common manifestations of depression is the feeling of being “numb,” where even the most basic actions like getting out of bed each morning or personal hygiene become incredibly challenging.
Viewing depression solely as a psychological issue means the danger lies in people not being able to share their struggles with those around them, or being misunderstood. If we look at depressed individuals as we do ourselves during moments of sadness or disappointment, we might assume that they can quickly snap out of it in a day or two. The truth is, depression is unique to each person, and we cannot fully comprehend someone else’s pain without being in their shoes. When hearing about someone’s suicide, you may say, “It’s a shame, I’ve been through something similar, but I got through it.” However, author Andrew Solomon suggests, “If you haven’t made that decision yourself, you haven’t really gone through what they’ve gone through.” Therefore, it would be cruel for someone to casually conclude that a person who died by suicide is weak or foolish. In reality, the decision to take one’s life may have been thought out for a long time, with a careful plan, before they took action.
The Collapse and Awakening
Depression is a collapse from within. You no longer feel “yourself” as you once did. Things that once brought happiness may no longer have an effect. You may want to break away from everything, self-destruct, and bid farewell to this life.
As terrifying as depression can be, it can also lead to unexpected positive outcomes if one can overcome it. Many artists admit that they become unexpectedly creative during periods of depression. Van Gogh left behind emotionally charged paintings in his short life marked by mental illness. Sylvia Plath is forever remembered for her work “The Bell Jar,” published shortly before her suicide. Lars von Trier confesses that he generates mad ideas for his experimental and mind-bending films during his depressive periods.
The collapse can also bring about an awakening for many individuals. It is a time of deep darkness and submersion in depression, allowing for introspection on oneself and the meaning of life. It is important to note that while most individuals with depression may entertain suicidal thoughts, only a small number of them actually act on it (and not everyone is successful). Some people need to live with medication and regular treatment throughout their lives, while others manage to overcome it and become more resilient.
According to experts from The School of Life, the “collapse” is a mechanism of the human mind’s self-defense. It forces individuals to undergo certain thoughts and emotions to mature, develop self-awareness, and build character – things that, in normal circumstances, people may not pay much attention to due to being preoccupied with everyday life. It’s as if your inner self is screaming for care, which you’ve long neglected. And to cope with these deafening screams, you have no choice but to stop, look deep inside, and confront yourself. This is an opportunity for you to reevaluate your inner deficiencies or life itself, and from there, find ways to repair, improve, or liberate yourself from any obsessions or torments. In a way, it’s like getting healthier; you must first go through a severe illness (although unfortunately, some do not recover from it). Because we always avoid confronting issues that cause us pain, such as fractures in relationships or an inner sense of anxiety, only a crisis can force us to stop and face them sincerely and seriously.
Depression often leaves people immersed in sadness and prolonged contemplation. On many nights, one may find it challenging to think clearly. They may cry incessantly or remain silent, staring at the ceiling, contemplating the most suitable way to die. However, somewhere amid those thoughts, there may be a glimmer of insight, sudden moments of “awakening,” or even emotional elation. This is why Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst, once said, “Melancholics have a deeper insight into reality than others,” emphasizing the importance of self-awareness and introspection in each person.
What Can Society Do?
While depression and other mental health issues are often considered highly personal matters, their significant impact on society cannot be ignored, leading to decreased productivity, unemployment, broken marriages, medical expenses for depression patients and their families, and most severely, suicide cases. Thus, society cannot turn a blind eye to this issue.
One issue that people with depression often encounter, which can exacerbate their condition, is the indifference or even blame from their loved ones. For individuals with depression whose family members lack understanding of the condition, they can easily fall into a vicious cycle: their depression leads to misunderstandings, reproach, and anger from their loved ones, but that very anger makes them feel guilty, “abnormal,” isolated from others, more vulnerable, and, consequently, may lead them into more severe depression.
Perhaps paradoxically, what society should do is to “normalize” depression while not trivializing the issue. This means that people should be encouraged to talk more openly about depression.
In Vietnam, the issue of depression, in particular, and mental health, in general, has not received adequate attention, especially in terms of raising awareness. Although there are various channels for people to share their feelings in newspapers and online forums, there is no guarantee that strangers providing advice or the administrators and editors of those platforms are qualified enough to help those facing difficulties. Moreover, some issues require long-term treatment and may involve medication, not just a few “ventilation” sessions. The crucial solution is to direct individuals with depression to the right professionals. Most Western countries today have helplines that connect people with depression to experts and even emergency hotlines (involving the police as well). Vietnam also needs such addresses and hotlines. Furthermore, Vietnam needs trained mental health counseling experts to work in schools and support students.
Depression should be seen as a significant social concern, but at the same time, we must dispel the prejudices surrounding this condition, so that those affected don’t feel ashamed, self-conscious, or fearful of seeking help. Ultimately, this is not an uncommon illness. According to the World Health Organization’s estimates in 2017, over 4% of the world’s population lived with depression, with women, adolescents, and the elderly being the most vulnerable groups.
In modern life, depression is becoming a prevalent issue for a considerable number of people, but unfortunately, it is mentioned far too little.
Edited by Le Hoai