Depression and Mental Illnesses Don’t Discriminate

Marian Frank
Marian Frank

The deaths of chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade elicit a common question: “How could people so successful and so wealthy — who seem to have everything — commit suicide?”

The answer is that depression and other mental illnesses don’t discriminate. They affect people from all walks of life and from all classes and income levels. Depression is an illness of the brain and, just like cancer or heart disease, being wealthy and successful is no protection from getting it.

Carol Olson, MD
Carol Olson, MD
In August, we had another painful reminder of this when Mesa businessman and politician Wil Cardon committed suicide at age 46. He struggled for years with depression, according to his wife, Nicole.

Suicide rates in Arizona increased 17.3 percent in Arizona between 1999 and 2016, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, the rate increased nearly 30 percent over the same time period, impacting both men and women and all ethnic groups. In 2016, 1,256 people in Arizona committed suicide, making it the eighth leading cause of death in the state, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Trying to make sense of why someone commits suicide is almost always difficult, if not impossible.

Severe depression often distorts a person’s thinking. They can feel their pain is intolerable with no hope for improvement, leading to thoughts of suicide. It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy and famous; depression can seriously cloud your judgment.

Shame and stigma still surround depression and other mental illnesses, and too often impede a person’s ability to seek help.

Unlike other serious health problems, depression is not immediately obvious to see, and some people think it is not serious, or that you can “just snap out of it.” We all have periodic times of feeling sad, but major depression is persistent, has many other symptoms beyond just sadness and has significant effects on a person's ability to function day to day.

If you think a friend of loved one may be in trouble, it’s important to take the initiative to approach them because depression can affect a person's ability to act on their own to get help. Often the suffering person needs others to assist them in getting treatment. One can begin by saying, "I notice you just don't seem to be yourself lately, and I'm worried about you."

It is OK to ask a depressed person if they have been having thoughts of suicide. Such thoughts are not uncommon for depressed people, and it is a help to them for others to ask about it. Questions about suicide don’t trigger the thoughts; instead, they reassure the person with depression that others care about them, take their problem seriously and are ready to help.

If you know someone is having thoughts of suicide, it is important that those who care about them make sure they are evaluated by a professional and don’t leave them alone until this happens.

You may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Dr. Carol Olson is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Maricopa Integrated Health System.

About the College

Founded in 2007, the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix inspires and trains exemplary physicians, scientists and leaders to optimize health and health care in Arizona and beyond. By cultivating collaborative research locally and globally, the college accelerates discovery in a number of critical areas — including cancer, stroke, traumatic brain injury and cardiovascular disease. Championed as a student-centric campus, the college has graduated 593 physicians, all of whom received exceptional training from nine clinical partners and more than 2,400 diverse faculty members. As the anchor to the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, which is projected to have an economic impact of $3.1 billion by 2025, the college prides itself on engaging with the community, fostering education, inclusion, access and advocacy.