Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Riding the Waves: Battling Depression & Suicide

by Debra Mares

Depression is real.  It’s alive.  And it’s on the top of our minds.  Dr. Joseph Cohen, Marin County's Chief Forensic Pathologist, who conducted the autopsy on comedian Robin Williams, determined he died of suicide as the result of asphyxia due to hanging by a belt.  News reports revealed Williams had been recently battling with depression.

Something I rarely talk about is my own family's struggle with depression.  My grandmother suffered from it, the manic kind, which causes people to show up one day smiling and the next wanting to drown themselves.  At least that was my impression as a child.  I remember Granny arriving at our doorstep from the Midwest, widowed and with a suitcase full of prescriptions. She was moving into our modest family home in Eagle Rock, a suburb of Los Angeles.  My dad wanted to cut her off cold-turkey from the very pills that gave her a reason to wake up the next morning; they were also giving her disturbing hallucinations.  When she pointed out the breakfast room window at the imaginary children she saw playing on our backyard swing set, I just smiled at her.  I was eight.

Part of growing up was learning when Granny was undergoing electric shock treatment or had been checked into "M3," the Mental Health Ward at Glendale Adventist Medical Center and was on “suicide watch.”  As a family, we learned to ride the waves with Granny.  Despite it all, we stood tall.  And today what stands out the most about my grandmother's disease, was her smile; it was the same kind Robin Williams shares in many of his photos - that grin that now makes me wonder if she was hiding behind a wall, fearing the unknown and the tidal waves inside her mind that most of us will never understand.  What also stands out to me was my mom’s caring ways for her mother-in-law, never leaving Granny alone, never questioning her hallucinations and helping her live with dignity, despite the demons in her mind.

Some call suicide selfish, but I learned at a young age that empathy requires us to put ourselves into the shoes of our loved ones, or more appropriately, their minds.  They ride waves that are probably better described as tsunamis.  I was called to exercise extreme empathy when one of my own Deputy District Attorney colleagues and mentors took his own life in 2010.  I still remember the day I pulled into a gas station near my office building and cried quietly as I read an office email detailing his passing.  I regretted not stopping by his office one last time, the time I walked right by him in the lobby while texting, and I felt terrible for his family, hoping they didn’t think it was their fault.  Ironically, Dr. Joseph Cohen, the same coroner who examined Robin Williams, was the Chief Forensic Pathologist in Riverside (he also happens to be my friend and has consulted my book writing); he conducted the autopsy of my colleague, who I learned died of suicide as the result of stabbing.  I acknowledged him as, “One of my many heroes” in my first book The Mamacita Murders and addressed suicide vis-a-vis the fictional character Officer Cruz.

Depression and suicide are real.  Studies show suicides are the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., eighth among people 55-64 years old and second among young adults ages 18-24.  According to the Washington Post, "Many suicides are the result of undiagnosed or untreated depression, often masked by self-medicating behaviors such as alcohol and drug use."


To honor Robin Williams and our loved ones who have ridden the waves, let us give the empathy, compassion and care to each of these women and men and their families suffering from depression.  Let’s recognize the warning signs, support them, and most of all, honor their lives with dignity. My grandmother Virginia was a gentle woman who lived a humble life, my colleague John was a heroic advocate for justice and Robin Williams was a comedic genius and titan. Despite it all, they all stand tall in my mind.