Right about this time last year, a colleague of mine committed suicide after wrestling with what by all accounts was severe and major depression. I had gotten to know Cheryl Hanna over a period of nearly 20 years as our lives routinely intertwined through Law School; law practice in Vermont; and of course politics.
I shared in the utter shock of Cheryl’s many friends, colleagues, acquaintances and fans, when she took her own life. I wondered how something so terrible could beset someone so well regarded. It was especially hard to accept that so many of us could miss a demon writ so large over the life of another.
As a society, there’s no longer any shame in discussing physical illness with family, friends, colleagues and even total strangers. We routinely hear about people battling cardio-vascular disease; auto-immune afflictions; neurological disorders; and of course cancer. We offer our empathy, support and advice with nary a thought.
Yet despite our progress in accepting the brain as just another physically sick organ that needs treatment, society still stigmatizes those with mental illness – mostly, I think, because we fear the unknown; also because we really don’t want to know; and maybe even because those who’ve never been bogged down in the swampy landscape of depression can never really know what it’s about. And while those persons may be comforted in not having suffered though the void that depression brings, it’s harder for them to empathize with those who have.
Depression is far, far more common than society is willing to admit. The Centers for Disease Control report that a study of parents with a 12 year old child found that 39% of women and 21% of men will have suffered from an episode of depression. That’s two out of every five mothers and one out of every five fathers.
And depression isn’t merely sadness; people who are depressed can’t just snap out of it or simply get it together. But most of all, depression isn’t something that anyone should ever be blamed for or stigmatized by. Until science allows us to conquer and vanquish the illness of depression, we need to be vigilant in our efforts to check in with each other and encourage those close to us - and even those not so close - to seek out and accept the best help possible.
Cheryl was a teacher who left us with one last lesson. We can all honor her by learning from it.