O Captain, My Captain: In which I mourn the loss of a childhood hero and discuss depression and suicide
Last night I came home from working at my library with a DVD in hand to watch with my family. It was 10 o’clock, but it’s one of our last few nights where we can stay up late so I went to slip it in. As the DVD player opened, a movie sat inside of it. That movie was A Night at the Museum. It’s not surprising that it was in there, it is one of the girls favorite movies. I have seen it a lot, glancing at it over their shoulders as I look up from the pages of the book I am reading. It brings them so much joy.
A few weeks ago, I decided The Tween was finally ready to watch Dead Poet’s Society with me. One of my favorite movies. Ever. In the end, when Neil Perry takes his life, The Tween began sobbing. What is he doing she asked? Why? So we had a conversation, about how it might feel to have no hope. About what it was like to be stuck in a place of such utter darkness that you couldn’t imagine a future anymore that didn’t involve despair.
When I first moved from Ohio to Texas, one of the teens from my hometown took his life. I found out when one of my favorite teens, a teen from my previous library that I keep in contact with (he’s an adult now, it’s okay), broke out in despair on Facebook. Just the year before, another individual that I worked with at the local public radio station had taken his own life. And just a few month’s later, the neighbor of a friend, the father of a teen I knew well from my previous library, attempted to take his life. He failed, but he put a bullet in his brain that caused severe damage that changed the landscape of all their lives. These past few years I have seen far too many people take or attempt to take their lives and the statistics indicate that suicide rates are indeed rising.
I cried yesterday at work when I saw the news about Robin Williams. I cried because Robin Williams is such a familiar face from the landscape of my life. I grew up watching Mork and Mindy. The Mr. and I saw Aladdin on one of our early dates. My kids watch A Night at the Museum the way I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, over and over and over again.
I cried because I understood all too well what darkness and the absence of hope feels like. When I miscarried my second baby, the only thing that got me out of bed each day was the knowledge that I had to find a way to take care of The Tween, who was only four at the time. There were times where it felt physically impossible to even lift my limbs.
I cried because I knew the long term ache that this kind of loss leaves in the hearts of all those that love someone who takes their own life. I have friends who speak often of the devastating guilt and overwhelming loss that the suicide of a loved one has left on their families, on them. But suicide is not a selfish act, it is a desperate act. It is the act of someone who has no reason to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, they can’t even imagine that there is an end to the tunnel. There is at times nothing but this tunnel, this dark, overwhelming tunnel that lies and whispers that suicide is the only way to end both the very real mental and physical pain.
I cried because I know how hard it can be to admit that you are struggling with depression in a world that still stigmatizes it; a world that still tells you to think positive thoughts or suggests that even just forcing yourself to turn your frown upside down into a smile can change your mood. And with all the discussions we have been having recently about mental health in the United States, it is still hard to get any let alone enough medical insurance to cover effective mental health treatment.
Depression is an illness. It is not a character flaw. It is not someone just not trying hard enough or having a pessimistic attitude. It is not someone having a lack of faith, as a Christian friend of mine often expressed. It is not karmic retribution. It is real and it is a daily battle for those who struggle with this disease.
1 in 12 teens suffers from depression. Mental Health America suggests that 1 in 5 teens may suffer from clinical depression. And some of the others, their families are affected by depression as a parent or a sibling wrestles with the disease and it impacts them all. Know who to refer the teens in your area to for help. Know that the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
Come this fall, I will take my girls to the movies to see the latest installment of A Night at the Museum, and I will cry. I will cry because it looks like another person lost their fight against the darkness that is depression. I will cry because that little alien from an egg that brought me so much joy in my childhood is no longer around to say Nanoo Nanoo. And I will cry every time I open my favorite book of poetry and see O’ Captain, My Captain.
By all accounts, Robin Williams probably had the means to get good health care to help fight his depression, and yet it appears he still lost the battle. I can’t help but think of all those who don’t have access to health care or insurance. All those who come from broken homes and may not have someone to call in their worst moments. Or all those who live among people who don’t understand what depression is so they can’t get the help that they need. We have to do more to de-stigmatize depression and help people get access to the resources they need to fight this disease. I’m tired of these tears, let’s do something different in the fight against depression.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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