Earlier this year, celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade tragically lost their battles with depression. Their suicides shocked fans and friends alike. No one saw this coming, leaving many to wonder if warning signs went unnoticed.
There’s a preconceived idea of what depression and suicidal behaviour looks like, but the reality is these dangerous behaviours are harder to spot than you might think. As someone who experiences depression, I know from experience that depression can go unnoticed until it’s too late.
So, here are warning signs you might not be watching out for that could help you recognise and reach out to a friend struggling with depression.
Depression is more than sadness
This isn’t a warning sign as much as a lens to see warning signs through. People who haven’t experienced depression can misunderstand what it entails. Yes, a popular sign of depression is inconsolable sadness and despair, but that’s just one of the many faces of depression.
Once or twice a month, I’m overcome with a deep sadness I can’t explain. I get overwhelmed with grief for no reason, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to shake the gloom. I have no energy, nothing can cheer me up, and if I could, I’d spend the whole day in bed.
But then there are the other 28 days in the month when I experience depression differently. I show up to work and struggle to focus on tasks. I lose interest in projects. I can’t compose my thoughts. I get anxious and overwhelmed by the smallest things.
Despite how frustrating this can be, I try to remain upbeat, positive, optimistic, interactive and friendly. So, depression isn’t as obvious as we imagine. It’s easy to miss if you’re only keeping an eye open for sadness and gloom.
Watch for strange mood swings
Envision depression with Pixar’s “Inside Out” in mind. God created us with a crucial balance of emotions that help us interpret, react and adapt to social environments. We have a healthy balance of joy, disgust (shame), fear, anger and sadness to make sense of our surroundings and operate within them.
But what happens if joy is temporarily displaced and other emotions are controlling you? It makes for an entertaining movie, but a roller coaster ride of a life. You’re happy as a clam one minute, and the next, out of the blue, you’re overwhelmed by a different emotion.
The cause of depression remains unknown, but somehow some emotions are amplified while others are reduced or disappear completely.
This emotional imbalance is most noticeable in the form of mood swings. If your friend’s mood changes for no clear reason, this may be a sign of depression. It doesn’t have to be from happiness to anger or happiness to sadness, either. Spontaneous guilt, fear or anxiety can be signs of depression, too.
Watch for insincere joy
We live in a joy-crazed culture. The default mood in western culture is happy. If you’re not happy, then something’s wrong and hopefully you’re getting that fixed. We’re obsessed with pursuing happiness and we love things that make us happy.
That’s why depression can make it hard to fit in. No one wants to spend time with Debbie Downer even if poor Debbie can’t control how she’s feeling today. So, people who experience depression learn ways to cope with their apathy and lack of joy. One way to cope is to fake joy and laughter by joking around and making light of things.
I’m prone to doing this, myself. I’ll mask my depression by joking around about anything and everything. If I can make someone smile or laugh that makes me happy and can break the spell. If I can’t, then things can get worse.
We can’t force ourselves to be happy, but that doesn’t keep people who struggle with depression from trying. So be on the lookout for friends trying too hard to be happy or make you laugh.
Watch for interest in high-profile suicides
Suicide rates increase after high-profile suicides. When a celebrity takes their life, the negative stigma of suicide disappears. We often view suicide as cowardly and selfish. But when someone the world admires gives up on life, the news is met with praise for their accomplishments. Public perception of suicide shifts from self-murder to a quasi-artistic martyrdom for a time. This shift provides a dangerous window of opportunity for people struggling with depression.
Also, it’s refreshing to listen to the celebrity’s grieving friends and family affirm their love and adoration in interviews. When you struggle to have the relationships you want because of depression, you long to hear those things. There’s a real temptation to do something drastic so someone will say those nice things about you, too.
You can never say “You are loved” too much
So you now know what to watch out for, but what do you do if you think your friend is struggling with depression?
It’s simple. Tell your friend how much you love him (or her), and say it as often as you can. Make sure he knows how much he means to you and how much joy he brings to your life. As Proverbs 16:24 says, “Kind words are like honey — sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”
Most suicides aren’t planned in advance. The deadly decision is made in the blink of an eye. Trust me, I know. On my way home from a fun night out with friends in college, I considered running my car off the road and into a concrete wall. Why? I don’t know. It was an option that popped into my head for a split-second, and for a moment, it seemed like a good one.
What kept me from acting on a split-second impulse? An ocean of love. My family, my friends, my church and God’s Word — all reminding me I’m precious and I am loved.
Keep your eyes open for the many faces of depression and know how to spot the warning signs. Never let your guard down. Use every opportunity to tell the ones you love how much they mean to you.
Paul summed it up well in Colossians 4:6 when he said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Season every conversation with grace because you never know what the other person is going through. You never know when your kind words can save someone’s life.
© 2018 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at boundless.org.