Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Searching for light amid dark night of the soul

Greg King. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Greg King. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The word itself is wrong. Depression. So bland - a wimp of a word, William Styron called it. It's serviceable for earth-bound stuff - a mundane economic change, a small dent or a bit of rain.

But it's too feeble for the ferocious psychological disorder that caused someone like respected defence lawyer Greg King to kill himself. Styron also argues for a more arresting, stormy name for depression, although even he, author of an acclaimed memoir of his own battle with the disease - can't come up with one.

In the end he just gives up and calls it madness. Greg King, so skilled with words, in his suicide note described himself as "exhausted, unwell, disillusioned, depressed and haunted".

With or without the right words, depression is still as mysterious and hard to talk about as ever.

Yes, I know Sir John Kirwan has done admirable work to make it seem less terrifying and more manageable, an ailment where apparently you can still get bucked up by going swimming and cooking a meal of spaghetti from scratch.

The PR makeover of depression has made it seem almost cosy, a problem like high cholesterol which can be fixed if you will just seek help, pills, advice.

Yet the New York Times says more human beings die by suicide annually than by murder and war combined. So despite the progress made by science - the sequencing of our genome, the invention of antidepressants, no more lobotomies - we can't deal with suicide.

The truth is that serious depression is not readily treatable at all. And serious depression, not just the blues, is still taboo, a subject of secrecy and shame.

In the coroner's report into King's death, we learned that his widow, Catherine Milnes-King, said King was depressed but was too stubborn to discuss it with anyone.

The popular discourse about depression is that it is a chemical imbalance, rather than a metaphysical crisis. We are okay with the mechanical-brain-juices-gone-wonky bit, but find the loss of faith in just going on living discomfiting.

That lack of real insight into depression is evident in the reaction when someone takes their own life, the mystification and puzzlement. Why did they do it? Surely by now we would know the answer is ... there is no answer?

Not being able to describe the anguish is part of the anguish. The dazzling writer Allie Brosh, in her wee chunk of genius Hyperbole and A Half, seems to come closest.

I can't take a random sentence out to show you, but she eventually recovered after finding a shrivelled piece of corn under the fridge. If that seems odd to you, it's meant to. The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it and it kills because its anguish can no longer be borne.

Styron says the prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. It is not something you can make better with a spot of yoga.

The most promising research around suicide seems to accept this truth in a matter-of-fact scientific way. The Harvard scientist Matthew Nock, known as the "suicide detective", said, "We've never gone out and observed, as an ecologist would or a biologist would ... the thing you're interested in for hours and hours and hours and then understand its basic properties and then work from that."

Some of Nock's work involves talking to those who have attempted suicide and failed, to analyse what they were thinking and gather data showing the difference between those who act on suicidal thoughts and those who don't.

Nock is trying to precisely measure suicide risk. In one paper, Nock's team suggests they have created an objective test that can predict a psychiatric patient's likelihood of a suicide attempt better than the patient or his clinician could.

But Nock is not just a number cruncher. He says the way he tries to interview suicide attempt survivors is by picturing Columbo, the frumpy, polite, persistently quizzical TV detective played by Peter Falk. "Just try to be really, really curious," Nock said.

I think Greg King, with his own questioning, clever brain, would have approved of that.

- NZ Herald

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