My husband came home from church today to tell me that he just found out that his favorite author, David Foster Wallace, had committed suicide. Even though I have not personally read any of his works or do not know this author, I was deeply anguished upon hearing this. This man was not only an author but also a professor and scholar. By the time he was in his mid-thirties, he had written a 1,000 page novel. Most of his contemporaries would probably say he was a genius. He was only 46 years old and recently married. Looking from a distance, one would think he had a great future ahead of him and a lot to look forward to.
So why would he commit suicide? The honest truth is, “I do not know. I did not know him.” My guess, being a mental health professional, is that he was a sufferer of some type of Mood Disorder such as Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Spectrum Disorder. It makes me so sad to think that an illness can drive someone to kill him or herself. But it can. Both Bipolar Disorder and Major Depression are extremely painful, physically and psychologically. Not having control over one’s mood, appetite, energy level, thoughts, sleep, and attitude is extremely disheartening.
People who have never witnessed the suffering of another who has been diagnosed with a mood disorder or have never experienced a mood disorder personally, may find it very hard to understand that the person is really ill and cannot just get over it or snap out of it. People can and do recover from episodes of depression or mania. But it may take a lot of work, tons of patience, some medication, and much support. The prognosis varies for different people, and most sufferers, whether bipolar or depressed, per my experience as a mental health worker for almost 20 years now, will have to fight more than one or two episodes during their lifetime. Often, these mood disorders are lifelong illnesses and, like diabetes or other chronic conditions, they need to be managed carefully over time.
I wish I could take away the stigma and shame associated with these and other mental illnesses. It seems to me that we still have a long way to go in this area. We live in a world that teaches us that it is possible to get rich quick. We also are constantly exposed to the “just think positive” mentality that says, “If you have a good attitude (think positively, that is), all will be well.” I call it the fast food and quick fix mentality. These ideas and cultural attitudes are not necessarily bad, but they can put a lot of undue pressure on people who cannot live up to the unspoken expectations beneath them.
Do these cultural ideas make a depressed person commit suicide? Probably not. I do not really know. A good attitude is a great thing to have. It helps a lot of people get though difficult times. What I do know is that those who suffer from any type of mood disorder put themselves under a lot of pressure to get well and not be “sick” or to just be “normal.” These sufferers do not need more pressure but more acceptance and the genuine support of friends, family, professions, and the world in general.