It's so easy to overlook, to underestimate. "Cheer up, it might never happen." It's easy to say. Often easy to do, too. Sometimes, however, suggesting that a smile will cure all ills, only shows a lack of understanding. Sometimes it takes a big name, a celebrity, a high-flying politician to be affected enough by something that whatever that something is, suddenly hits the news.
Gary Speed, a well known footballer and football manager, took his own life. The news only broke today so one can only assume, at this very early stage, that Gary was trying to cope with some unenviable hardship. He was a man who seemingly had everything to live for, a loving family, a place in the history books of both national and international football, a career and direction in life envied by many. And yet, somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind and soul, a dark, endless depression loomed.
It's a tough one, depression. I see patients practically daily on anti-depression medications. Depression is the only illness named and described with the same word. Diabetes is an illness where a person's sugars are out of control. Hypertension is when blood pressure is too high. Asthma is when the lungs aren't working properly.
Depression is when a person is depressed.
The other problem is that depression is a word that is bandied about all too freely. People are depressed when they miss out on a good night out, they're depressed when their boss tells them off, they're depressed when their football team loses. But depression isn't sadness or upset. It's a state of mind caused by one of many factors and triggers, some physical, some chemical, some emotional, where a person can appear happy and content with their lives, and yet not be able to cope with all that is happening around them.
Often, in the depths of these depressions there is only one viable option, and that's the option that Gary Speed seems to have taken. Some will claim that this is a selfish option, but to be honest, my uneducated mind tells me that for something to be selfish, there needs to be conscious and coherent thought. Depression allows for neither. The mind's inability to cope, to rationalise, to comprehend, leads the body down a path of self-destruction.
It's also not something that we can solve in a twenty minute meeting in the back of an ambulance. Sometimes, however, just being able to spot the first signs, may be the trigger that leads a patient to treatment and save them and their families heartbreak in the long term. Most of the knowledge I have about depression isn't from books or classrooms, it's from witnessing it first hand. It's not something we're taught as paramedics to really deal with, because most of the time we're dealing with the consequences, not the disease itself.
We can bandage wounds, or we can pronounce death. Understanding that there's a stage before this, a stage that we should be able to spot, may be the most life-saving action we can perform out on the front line.