Mary Richardson Kennedy: The Denial of Depression

Her friends say, "No one remembers her as depressed," but it is an injustice to the dead and the living to minimize the power of this deadly illness

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Peter T. Michaelis / AP

Mary Richardson Kennedy outside her Bedford, N.Y. home where she killed herself on Wednesday, May 16, 2012. She was 52.

Mary Kennedy’s friends held a memorial service in her honor earlier this week. One friend remarked to a New York Times reporter that during the eulogies “there was nothing about depression.” She felt that people had gotten the wrong impression of her lost friend. “No one remembers her as depressed.”

Mary Kennedy committed suicide, hanging herself, at the age of 52. She had struggled with profound depression for several years.

And there, in the friend’s misguided remarks, is a terrible problem. It is still with us: the stigma of depression. It is still with us: the denial of an illness that is as fiercely debilitating as any cancer. It is still with us: the inability to understand how, even while struggling against depression, a person can be also be highly functioning, and even radiant, joyful, generous and loving. Most depressed people try very hard to be happy. It is exhausting work.

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I think I can understand the impulse behind the friend’s remarks. She does not want Mary Kennedy’s life reduced to her final act. Many people make similar remarks after suicides: “She seemed fine.” “We had no idea how depressed he was.” “She was full of life, full of love.” But would the grief-stricken say of a friend who died of cancer, no one remembers her cancer? Probably not. It is more likely they would honor the victim’s struggle against it.

Is it possible that friends can be so blind to the depressed person’s suffering? Yes. It is also possible for the depressed to mask or hide their suffering — for a while. It is also possible for even the most attentive friend to miss the hints of despair. And sadly, most of us are not usually so attentive. Depression is also such a frightening disease that we go out of our way to minimize it, out of some sort of wishful thinking — this too will pass. Cheer up!

Amazingly, after all the articles, television shows, movies and talk shows, all the celebrity stories about struggling with depression, there is still a vast misunderstanding of the toll depression takes.

(MORE: Why Patients Don’t Open Up to Doctors About Depression)

We want to believe that depression blinks on and off — and that suicide is caught in a moment of rash irrationality. We don’t understand how depression settles heavily over a soul, weighing down every moment of every day. With every taste of sweet joy comes the knowledge that there may well, and soon, be another spill over the cliff into despair.

We confuse depression with sadness — the normal, healthy sadness anyone would feel while going through the collapse of a marriage, the difficulty of divorce proceedings. We want to be able to point to a cause: she was depressed because of a fight. She was depressed because she was lonely and frightened. She was depressed because her estranged husband had a new girlfriend. Most of us manage to take in stride our own divorces, bitter fights, horrific accidents and all sorts of other terrible losses. The depressed draw on much lower reserves in dealing with life’s problems — if they have any resilience at all.

Those who have never been depressed have no idea how difficult a disease it is. Belittling the force of depression only reinforces the isolation of the depressed, the sense of exile from that large, bustling, cheerful continent of hope on which normal people live.

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Mary Kennedy left behind four children. I have no doubt that she loved her children “without reservation,” as her family said in a statement. Anyone who has any experience with the twisted logic of the profoundly depressed comes to understand that suicides do not necessarily act out of heartlessness, or selfishness, though it can feel that way to those left behind. (And, of course, some people do kill themselves out of anger and a desire to inflict punishment.) Rather, profoundly depressed people convince themselves that what they are about to do is for the best: everyone, even children they love beyond all measure, will be better off without them.

We owe depression more respect. No one wants to reduce a beloved to one quality. Depressed. We are all complicated, multi-faceted creatures, our lives layered with iridescent moments of joy and beauty. But it is an injustice not only to the dead, but to the living, to minimize the suicide’s bravely hopeless struggle against a ferocious foe: depression.