The blank face of depression

I have a confession to make: The A&E reality show Storage Wars is one of my guilty pleasures.  The show features a group of entrepreneurs who bid at auctions for the contents of abandoned storage lockers.  They then take the contents of the lockers, search for valuable items, and attempt to sell these items at a profit.  It is a strangely intriguing show, and the perfect way to unwind on a Friday night.

I haven’t watched the show in several months, so I was shocked to learn yesterday that one of the show’s regular cast members, weathy auction house owner Mark Balelo, committed suicide in February.

 It seems that the trigger was a drug charge Balelo was facing involving possession of methamphetamines.  A drug charge is no small matter, but for Balelo to commit suicide as a result of this legal problem seems a bizarre and tragic overreaction, to say the least.  How can we explain this?

Reading about the Balelo case reminded me of another situation involving a grotesque response to ordinary troubles: the tragic case of Ludwig Boltzmann, the nineteenth-century Austrian mathematician and physicist.

Boltzmann held a view that was extremely controversial in the nineteenth century: he believed in the existence of tiny particles called atoms.  For this revolutionary position he was ostracized from much of the scientific community and spent most of his professional life defending himself from the criticisms and attacks of his colleagues.  He finally committed suicide in 1906 at the age of 62; the year before, a young, unknown physicist named Albert Einstein had written a groundbreaking paper mathematically demonstrating the existence of atoms.  By 1909 the existence of atoms had been proven through controlled experimentation.  This was, of course, too late for Boltzmann, who died believing his life had been a failure.

Botlzmann and Balelo had little in common.  They were separated by history, nationality, profession, and temperament.  One thing, however, binds them together: both men suffered–and died–from a devastating illness that used to be called melancholia but that is today called clinical depression.  Depression is one of the most common mental disorders, sometimes described as the “common cold” of psychiatry.  It is second only to heart disease worldwide as a leading cause of disability.  Approximately 2.5 million Canadians suffer from some form of depression, and of these, many are teens and young adults who are at risk of suicide.

It should be obvious that clinical depression is a major issue that should be addressed in elementary, middle, and secondary schools yet it is not.  Even the high-profile death by suicide of a number of Canadian teens in recent years (most recently in the tragic case of Rehtaeh Parsons) has prompted an outpouring of anger and intense debate about bullying and sexual assault, but hardly any discussion at all about teenage depression.  Without question, bullying and assault play a role in these kind of cases, but they hardly explain suicide, anymore than Mark Balelo’s suicide can be explained by a drug charge, or Ludwig Boltzmann’s can be explained by the scientific community’s rejection of his controversial views.  The vast majority of those who are bullied and/or sexually assaulted do not commit suicide, nor do the vast majority of those who are arrested for drug possession or the vast majority of scientists who hold controversial positions.  Something else has to be at work to explain such an extreme, horrific response as suicide, and that something is, more often than not, depression (or a related form of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder).

Schools routinely discuss with their students (and parents) the risks of drug and alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking, drinking and driving, and various sexual behaviours.  Yet the very real–and often far more prevalent–dangers posed by untreated and undiagnosed mental illness are often not addressed.  There is in many schools a conspiracy of silence, a stigma surrounding depression.  There are people who will immediately seek treatment if they are diagnosed with cancer or struggling with alcoholism who will suffer for decades from depression without consulting a physician.  People are given love, support, and encouragement if a loved on suffers from cancer, but they feel humiliation and shame if a loved one deals with depression.

As long as Canadian schools continue to ignore this growing epidemic we will continue to see stories like Mark Balelo and Ludwig Boltzmann.  Just like in Boltzmann’s time, those who suffer mental disorders are treated by us with stigma and shame.  Yet unlike Boltzmann’s time, we know far too much about depression today to have any excuse for doing so.
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