By: Richard Zeidel
I talk about depression a lot these days. I’m working on mind.me daily and am invested both emotionally and financially in the business. The company and its mission have a deep personal connection, as depression has been part of my life for many years.
In telling the story of the company and selling the business to investors, partners, the press and customers I began to recognize language which came naturally, and is part of the zeitgeist, but made me wholly uncomfortable. It was language I was using but didn’t resonate with my experience or with the way I thought about myself or my community.
I was talking about people who suffer from depression. Suffer depression. I don’t see myself as suffering. Suffering is about pain, distress, hardship and is then used to characterize an individual. Suffering is about loss and is only negative. No good comes from suffering.
It got me thinking.
We know that over 90% of suicides victims are mentally ill, many of whom suffer from depression. I was recently in a meeting talking about someone who had “committed suicide” when I was corrected, “we don’t say commit suicide, we say died by suicide.”
And it made me stop. It resonated with me and I connected it to the way I was thinking about defining people as suffering from depression.
Why do we say commit suicide? Of the 195 sovereign states in the world, suicide is legal, meaning not considered a crime, in 87. We say commit suicide because suicide is currently and has historically been viewed as a crime. You commit suicide because you are committing a crime. In the United States, the act of suicide was deemed a crime and until as recently as 1963, six states still considered attempted suicide as a criminal act. In Canada, the laws identifying suicide as a crime were codified when Parliament enacteda the Criminal Code in 1892 and was only repealed eighty years later in 1972. Suicide stopped being a crime in Canada a year before I was born.
It is only logical that when the state views suicide as a crime that the people would associate the crime with shame. Would you openly tell family members or an employer about a family member who committed a crime? No. Crime is associated with shame. And shame with stigma.
So, there is an argument to be made that our laws led to our use of specific language (in this case committing a crime or suicide), our use of language led to shame and shame led to stigma. The statistics articulate this reality as we know that between 35% — 85% of people who have severe mental health disorders do not receive treatment. A portion of this can be attributed to stigma.
While laws have changed, language has not. The result is the residue of shame associated with an act of desperation enacted by someone who is sick. There should be no construct connecting suicide to a crime. Mentally ill people, who are affected by an illness that is so gruesome that they see no alternative but to take their own lives are not committing suicide. Few pieces of legislation are so repugnant and demonstrate the lack of empathy of the state towards its people.
Language matters and we are responsible for our choice of words as they have lasting and unintended consequences.
Committing suicide is offensive.
We do not commit suicide. We die by suicide.
This began to shape, in a different context, my thinking about depression and the way we express ourselves.
We do not suffer from depression. We battle depression.
When we suffer, it is only negative, and we can only lose. It characterizes not only an affected state of mind but a way of being. We battle depression. We fight it. Sometimes daily. When we battle, sometimes we lose but sometimes we win. The wins make us stronger and more determined to fight again. This is the seed of transformation from a defeatist mindset to a spirit of hope. Battling can be the difference between a terminal decision and and the ability to maintain hope to overcome.
If you are unsure about how to approach someone who is battling depression, know that by changing your language you are helping to change a state of mind. It might seem like an insignificant and inconsequential change, but the personal and political impact is nothing less than transformative.
Our company has been affected by this realization. mind.me has developed technology to help people who battle depression detect, manage and predict their disorder. We choose this language because mind.me is a technological advancement and a new weapon in the arsenal used to battle depression.
“I believe there is a soul, and that soul comes into the world to learn about love in the presence of fear and faith in the presence of doubt. For this reason, I think our efforts to perfect human reality are doomed to fail exactly as often as they proceed, since a genuinely perfect world would offer neither fear nor doubt.
In this view, both life and technology are zero-sum games. We vanquish old problems and create as many new ones in the process. We achieve local advances while elsewhere we’re beaten back. We ascent through increasing complexity and yet suffering continues unabated.
I think the goal lies less in creating a perfect world than in continuing the effort. The greatest human achievement is not technology.
It is hope.”
– John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Lyricist for the Grateful Dead