Coming out of the darkness
Published: April 20, 2011
When our writers’ group meets for lunch, Diana Hartman is a regular. She’s the comic of the bunch. Her dry wit and acerbic commentary keep us laughing. Her kindness and encouragement keep us coming back. But if you want to see her angry, bring up AFN commercials about suicide prevention.
Among the things I know about my friend is that she is a career Marine wife, a fiercely devoted mother, and she has been to the edge of suicide and back. She knows what she is talking about.
“So where does conventional wisdom on suicide go wrong?” I asked her one day.
“There is no conventional wisdom on this subject,” she answered, without hesitation. “There are false beliefs, myths and assumptions.”
Every conversation about preventing suicide, Diana said, should be a conversation about treating depression successfully. Preventing suicide is important, she said, but really saving a life means treating the individual for the underlying issue – depression.
“There are essentially six things in my opinion which should be done for every depressed person. They need, at the same time, regular and appropriate doses of medication, therapy, comedy, light, a creative outlet and regular physical activity,” Diana said.
“These should not be suggestions, they should be prescriptions,” she said. “Whatever the military has to do to fill these prescriptions, let’s get on it.”
“They work,” she said. “I know they work, because they worked for me. They’ve worked for other people who were depressed or suicidal.”
She speaks from years of experience as a patient and – in the years since her recovery – as a volunteer counselor with depressed and suicidal people.
“The USO sends comedians into the war,” she said. “Why comedians? The comedy – whether it’s a funny movie, whether it’s standup, good standup, not crap, not raunchy language – makes you laugh, and laughter continues to be medicine even after you have stopped laughing.”
Real creativity is an important outlet too, she aid.
“When I was in the psych ward the first time, they called in occupational therapy. These two, way over-cheerful women came in to help us work with our hands. I swear to God, it was pipe cleaners, glitter, construction paper and glue … and scissors that don’t work because you’re depressed people, and therefore you get scissors that don’t work. How frustrating is that?
“It was obvious these women had not worked with many people in our position and did everything they could do to distance themselves from people like us," she said.
"If someone said they were depressed to the point of being suicidal, it would never occur to me to give them glue and pipe cleaners."
She described another more effective therapy program, where each participant was allowed to choose his or her own creative outlet.
Diana said she can’t understand why some psychiatric wards in military hospitals are dark, windowless and offer little in the way of physical activity, when light and exercise are known to have positive effects on mental health.
Suicide has become a concern in the military community, as suicide rates have risen during the past few years. Diana said she does not worry about whether the military community has more suicides than the civilian world.
“Who cares who has more?” she said simply. “If my husband commits suicide, do I care whether he’s military or civilian? No.”
What she does care about is the way suicide is discussed by military leaders.
People who talk about suicide, Diana said, must be willing to use serious terminology, like depression, self-loathing, uselessness and disgust. She does not mince words.
“When you talk about suicide you need to use the word suicide,” she insisted.
“People say ‘This is not something you talk about in polite company.’ Well, are you talking to people in polite company, or are you talking to people who might jack themselves up in a day or two? Who are you trying to please? If you can’t use big people words, then make room for people who are willing to say them.
“If your doctor isn’t willing to use the word for cancer, are you going to go to that doctor for treatment? Probably not.”
Diana also believes mental illness should be treated more like physical illness.
“When somebody has cancer, now we’re a team, the doctor and the nurse and the family and the patient, and sometimes even our society. We’re working together,” said Diana. “The depressed person is still so starkly alone.”
Describing depression accurately is important too. It is not just sadness. Numbness is more accurate, Diana said.
“It is a giant vacuum sucking out everything: your self worth, whatever is important to you, your energy level, your reason, your logic.”
At that point, she said, it’s hard for a depressed person to process reasons to keep living.
“Suicide is dark. It’s dark because it’s been swept under the rug, and it’s dark under there,” she said.
“Breast cancer used to be really, really dark, and now it’s not. The disease is dark, but how we see it and how we respond to people who have it are not dark anymore.
“I dream of a day when someone says, ‘I feel like killing myself,’ and somebody else says, ‘Let’s get some light on that,’ rather than moving away like, “Oh, God, it’s probably contagious.”
Diana found her way out of the dark with the help of her husband, a friend who would not leave her alone in her misery and good therapy. She said it was mixed with bad therapy over the years, but she remembers by name the practitioners who really helped.
“They made so much of a difference that the other 30 or 40 crap doctors, social workers and therapists that I had didn’t take me down,” Diana said.
Her advice to someone suffering in the darkness of depression like she did:
“I know it shouldn’t be like this. I know it isn’t fair. I know you’ve endured a litany of people who were supposed to help you and didn’t, and some of them even made it worse. I know you feel helpless, hopeless, listless and dreary, apathetic, bored disgusted and defeated. Get help anyway. I know it’s hopeless. Do it anyway.”
To read Diana's articles about depression and suicide see:
For more about how to support someone with depression, see this article from the Huffington Post.
Diana also welcomes any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org