A mum's memorial and hope to understand a horrible and secret condition
Reprinted from "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(3), pp. 29-30
I write about Gavin, the storyteller, full of wit and intelligence - a passionate gobbler of knowledge and the kind defender of everyone. Gavin was my son who had a killing disease called depression. Although he was much more than this, I am telling his story through a particular lens. I will share what I know about depression and, by association, guess at Gavin's inner life.
The reason I am proceeding this way is that for me, imagining what it is like to be another is at the centre of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and it is the beginning of morality. Suicide has left me few clues to enable such empathy, but this is the last task Gavin has left us. By attempting this endeavour I hope to be a little wiser about the horrible and secret disease that claimed him and accordingly, to understand.
Although shaken to the core by Gavin's suicide, I wasn't surprised. Gavin was sick once before. All of us who loved him, watched and asked with care and fear ever after. But apparently suicide can't be held at bay by conversations full of love and promise. I knew that even as he was surrounded by vigilance, he was especially vulnerable. People who have a major depressive episode and have made a suicide attempt have a 50% chance of getting sick again.
He first got sick in 1995. He lost some weight, couldn't sleep, and was irrational and anxious. I found it hard to get my mind around the possibility that something was amiss. He was always a happy, stable, successful, balanced person. Whatever was happening the doctors couldn't see. They opined on his intelligence and on how articulate he was, or about the fact that he was just twenty. In desperation Gavin tried to stop the misery by taking pills.
Effective treatments for depression are beginning to be developed, but there are few diseases that are as mistreated. Research tells us that only half of the people who are depressed even search for treatment. Of those that do, most go to their family physician, who often have little training in either recognition of depression, or about the most appropriate interventions. As a result, the illness is diagnosed only 40% of the time, and even among those who are diagnosed, under half will get treatment. Fewer still will receive appropriate treatment, with one study estimating that only about 2% of people with depression get optimal care.1
Gavin tried to be well, but depression has the ability to outmaneuver, weaken and obliterate. Suicide became the only solution to an unendurable level of mental pain. He made another major attempt on his life, resulting in broken bones and head injury. After rehabilitation and psychotherapy, along with medication, he returned to life and all of his passions.
Why do people get depressed? The literature is replete with ideas, that include a composite of genetic, neurological, environmental, and chemical reasons. Recent research claims almost 3% of the population suffer from chronic depression at any one time. Depression is the leading cause of disability and accounts for more of the world disease burden than anything other than heart disease. Depression claims takes away more years from our lives than war, cancer, and AIDS put together. Other diseases mask depression, and if you include alcoholism for example, depression may be the biggest killer on earth.
Gavin had five more years of success. He completed an undergraduate degree in his beloved mathematics and went on to graduate school. However, successes were not enough to keep depression away, nor were caring friends, colleagues and family. Gavin had all those in abundance. Unbeknownst to any of us the depression came back.
Positive Steps out of Grief
Lloyd and Heather Craig have spearheaded a unique campaign. The UBC (University of British Columbia) Hospital Mood Disorders Centre, in partnership with the Vancouver General Hospital and UBC Hospital Foundation, the UBC Department of Psychiatry, and the UBC Brain Research Centre, are raising funds for an endowed Chair in Depression Research and a Centre of Excellence in Depression. The Chair in Depression Research will attract new research dollars to Vancouver, build on existing relationships and establish new ties with professional colleagues and interested stakeholders across Canada and around the world. Together, they will build a critical mass of knowledge and understanding in depression that will make Vancouver and UBC a Centre of Excellence in depression research, treatment, education and care. In only a few short months, over $4.5 million has been raised, and a commitment for a major donation is forthcoming. For more information, visit www.psychiatry.ubc.ca/mood/chair.htm
According to Kay Jamison, a researcher in depression in its severe forms and suicide: "Depression paralyzes all of the otherwise vital forces that make us human, leading instead to a bleak, despairing, desperate, and deadened state. It is a barren, fatiguing, and agitated condition; one without hope or capacity?. All bearings are lost; all things are dark then drained of feeling. The slippage into futility is first gradual, then utter. Thought, which is as pervasively affected by depressions mood is morbid, confused and stuporous. It is also vacillating, ruminative, indecisive, and self-castigating. The body is bone weary; there is no will; nothing is, that is not an effort, and nothing at all seems worth it. Sleep is fragmented, elusive, or all consuming. Like an unstable gas, an irritable exhaustion seeps into every crevice of thought and action."2
About 15% of depressed people commit suicide, and Gavin was one of those. Jamison's description help make sense of the end: it is neither selfish nor unselfish, but rather it is a giving in to being unable to bear any more. Gavin's amazing persona was unbreakable as the gap between private pain and public expression was absolute. Gavin was able to make his pact with death and not show any of us a sign.
Gavin's illness and death is not the sum of his life. But imagining his depression seems necessary for me to clearly remember his life. I do understand, and I will miss my beautiful son forever.
About the author
Heather is a volunteer staff member of the BC Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health www.bcmentalhealthworks.ca and is responsible for research and communications, with a special focus on outreach to the health professions. She graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1969 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and worked as a nurse in various capacities until 1989. Since 1990 she has worked as an artist, with arts degrees from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and Simon Fraser University. Her husband, Lloyd Craig, is Chair of the roundtable and CEO of Coast Capital Savings, Canada's second largest credit union.
- Parikh, S.V., Lesage, A.D., Kennedy, S.H., Goering, P.N. (1999) Depression in Ontario - Under Treatment and Factors Associated with Antidepressant Use. Journal of Affective Disorders, 52 (1-3): 67-76
- Jamison, K. (2000). Night falls fast: Understanding suicide. Vintage Books. p. 104.