Robin Williams And The Tragedy Of Depression


Last night, for the first time ever, I cried over a celebrity’s death. My tears had nothing to do with the loss of such an immense talent – although I have been a Robin Williams fan for decades – and everything to do with the fact that another life has been lost to mental illness.

I suspect that I am not alone. I suspect that right now, people all over the globe are relating to the drowning feeling of depression that drove Robin Williams to seek such a desperate escape. Several times since this tragic news broke, I have seen variations of one overriding question on my social media feeds: if a man with the financial resources of a celebrity could not find the help that he needed, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The truth is that while money can buy therapy, it does not buy the understanding of those around us. I started seeing my therapist four years ago, and although it has undoubtedly helped me, the benefits I have gained have been severely restricted by the stigmas and misconceptions that surround mental illness to this day. A number of conditions have to be met in order for therapy to truly work. The right therapist is one. Adequate support and understanding in your daily life is another.

It’s not to say that people don’t care – it’s just that many of them don’t understand. If I had a dollar for the number of times I’ve been told that depression is not a “real” illness, I’d had enough for an entire team of therapists.

I’ve written about the misconceptions surrounding depression before, but they are worth repeating, especially now that Robin Williams has put such a focus on it by taking his own life.

* When I am in the grip of depression, I cannot “snap out of it”. Asking someone to snap out of depression is like asking them to snap out of a heart attack.

* Depression is not to be equated with sadness. It cannot even be regarded as a severe form of sadness. Depression and sadness are two completely different things, in the same way that asthma and the common cold are two completely different things.

* Suicide is not a selfish, cowardly act. It is the act of someone who is desperate to get away from a terrible, desolate, frightening situation, and who sees no other escape route.

* Contrary to a popular Facebook meme, people with depression are not “focused on the past”, and they will not magically cure themselves by living in the present.

* Sometimes, for some people, the right medication can lead to dramatic improvements in quality of life, but it’s not for everybody. Someone who refuses medication is not being stubborn. They might be afraid, or they might have learned from experience that it doesn’t work for them.

* A person with depression is capable of smiling, laughing at jokes and having a good time with friends. If you see a picture of someone smiling, don’t say that they “can’t be that depressed”. Robin Williams himself is a perfect illustration of that.

This list is a drop in the bucket, but if we can shift peoples’ understanding on these few points, that will be a good start. If you suffer from depression, don’t be afraid to talk about it and ask for help. It’s really nothing to be ashamed of. If you know someone with depression, be there for them. One of the scariest things for a person with depression is the feeling of being alone in the world.

The death of Robin Williams is a great tragedy. It will be an even greater tragedy if we don’t learn something from it. If his death leads to greater awareness and understanding, and saves just one person from suicide – well, I think he would like that.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: BagoGames. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


5 Myths About Autism That Really Have To Go


Sharing a laugh with George

Sharing a laugh with George

1. People with autism are violent

Whenever there is a mass shooting, at least one media outlet makes a point of mentioning that the perpetrator “was probably autistic” or “was suspected of having Aspergers”. This kind of reporting is irresponsible, groundless and discriminatory. Yes, it is true that some people with autism have violent tendencies, but that is also true of the general population. Some black people have violent tendencies, but we don’t go around saying that the perpetrators of crimes “were probably black”, because that would be inexcusably racist. In any case, numerous statistics have shown that people with autism and other developmental disabilities are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. I could go on about this all day, but instead I will point you to this excellent post written by my friend Sophie Walker.

2. People with autism have to follow special diets

Autism parents are always being told to change their kids’ diets. We are bombarded with messages telling us that everything we buy at the grocery store is aggravating the autism and poisoning our families. We are pushed towards the gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free, everything-free versions of foods, and there are two problems with this. First, in many cases it is not necessary. Second, these special diets cost an absolute fortune. Many autism families can barely make ends meet as it is – it is wrong to expect them to stretch themselves even further by spending money on expensive foods that in most cases, won’t make a difference. The proper way to do it is to have the child properly tested by a qualified professional, and then make any dietary changes that are needed.

3. People with autism are not capable of empathy

Last weekend, I was at a park with my kids. James was playing on the slides and George was sitting on the outskirts of the play area, contentedly picking up handfuls of sand and letting it slip through his fingers. All of a sudden, I heard a cry of pain, and I looked up to see that a little girl of nine or ten had fallen off the swing. She was lying on the sand crying, and the swing was moving back and forth like a pendulum above her head. Without hesitation, George leapt up and ran to the little girl. He stopped the swing from moving, and guided her out from underneath it. Then he simply stood there beside her until her mother reached her. The moral of this story is: don’t tell me that my child with autism is not capable of empathy. Like many kids with autism, he is capable of empathy, but he doesn’t always know how to express it.

4. People with autism are geniuses

Honestly, Rain Man has a lot to answer for. Because of that movie, people keep asking me if George can instantly do large math sums in his head, or identify with a single glance how many Cheerios have fallen out of a box. The answer is no. He can’t. He’s an intelligent child with problem-solving skills that will stand him in good stead through life, but I have to be realistic. The kid isn’t a genius, nor would I expect him to be. True savants, like artist Stephen Wiltshire, or musician Derek Paravicini, are rare.

5. People with autism don’t understand what’s going on around them

Sometimes I find myself in conversations with people who are asking me about autism, talking about George’s future and making comments on his limitations. I am always happy to have these conversations, but not necessarily in front of George. He may have autism, but he has ears that work, and he understands more than his limited speech lets on. On a related note, it drives me crazy when people ask things like, “Would he like a cup of juice?” when he’s standing right there. If you want to know what George would like to eat and drink, ask him, not me. He often needs help to answer questions, but he should at least be given the opportunity to try. How is he going to learn to have a conversation if people keep talking about him and not to him?

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.


9 Things I’m Tired Of Seeing On Facebook


The first thing I do every morning, while the rest of the family are still somewhere in Dreamland, is sit down with a cup of coffee and see what’s been going on in Facebookland while I’ve been sleeping. Within the first minute or so, as I’m scrolling down my newsfeed, I usually see about half a dozen things that annoy me. What’s worse is that I tend to get annoyed by the same things that annoyed me the previous day.

Maybe I’m getting old and jaded.

Or maybe people just keep posting the same annoying stuff, day in and day out.

Whatever the case may be, I want to vent about it a little bit. Here is my list of annoying things that I’m tired of hearing about.

1) The US Supreme Court has acknowledged that vaccines cause autism. The US Supreme Court has acknowledged no such thing. Here’s some intelligent, informed reading about that particular annoying topic. And just for the record, people who choose to vaccinate their children are not “sheeple”. The autism community, which already has enough problems, can do without that kind of name-calling.

2) Americans should be very afraid of the fact that the government can’t even put together a functional website, and yet they’re taking control of the health care system. Look, I’m not going to offer my opinions about Obamacare, simply because I don’t know enough about it. Maybe it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe it will be an unmitigated disaster. I don’t know. What I do know is this: the fact that the website doesn’t work is not a predictor of the eventual success or failure of Obamacare. All it means is that the website sucks. This annoying thing is annoying because it’s yet another example of people linking two things that have little or nothing to do with each other.

3) Everything in your fridge is poisoning your family. Every day, I see endless posts claiming that this food is soaked in bleach or that food is really made of mushed-up alien brain. OK, not that last one, but you get the picture. There is so much food-related fear-mongering going on, and I’m just tired of hearing it. I always appreciate information that is valid, informed and balanced. I do not like quote-unquote “information” that serves no purpose but to scare people.

4. The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. I will never understand why we can’t just do what we can to stop the bad guy from getting the gun in the first place. Yes, I know that no system will ever be 100% guaranteed, but should that stop us from trying? Besides, you know what can stop a good guy, whether he has a gun or not? A bad guy with a gun.

5. When a celebrity dies it’s all over Facebook, but when a soldier dies no-one cares. First of all, there’s nothing wrong with people talking about celebrity deaths. Celebrities are a part of our culture. It’s OK for us to feel sad when they die. Secondly, I find that people are very respectful about the military, and fallen soldiers do get extensively recognised.

6. 97% of people won’t share this lame post that completely fails to raise awareness about cancer, child abuse or mental illness. I care about all of these things, but I don’t feel the need to prove it by annoying all of my Facebook friends. Anyway, where does that statistic even come from?

7. Asking your friends to change the settings on posts they see in their timeline will prevent Facebook from sharing your entire life with everyone in the world. As annoyances go, this is a pretty big one. The only person who can control who sees your posts is you. Not your friends. If you don’t want the public to see your posts, go and check your privacy settings. But if your friends make the change you’re asking them to make (which usually comes with a threat to unfriend anyone who doesn’t comply), all that will happen is that they will stop seeing your posts. Am I the only one who sees the irony in that?

8. Because cigarette packaging has gruesome images on it, fast food should come with pictures of obese children, and alcohol should have pictures from the scenes of drunk driving accidents. Here’s the thing. If you eat a burger, I’m not going to get fat. Your consumption of fast food has no impact on me. It is true that when people get drunk and then drive, other people can die. But drinking and driving is against the law. Cigarettes can kill people who are not smoking them when used exactly as intended, in accordance with the law.

9. It doesn’t matter that this heartwarming story is fake. It’s still inspiring. No, it’s NOT. It’s fake! Maybe – like I said earlier – I’m getting old and jaded, but I just don’t get how something that’s not true can be inspiring. If you want to inspire me, tell me a heartwarming story that actually happened. Like this one.

And yes, that story is true. I checked it myself on Google Maps, and on a site that everyone should bookmark for those occasions when they just have to share something they’ve seen on Facebook: Snopes.

What annoyances do you see in your social media feeds?

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: marksmotos. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.




In Defence Of Runners: Five Running Myths Dispelled

I have noticed a very strange phenomenon. When I tell people that I am a runner, many of them – all non-runners, of course – go to great lengths to tell me how bad running is for me. I’m never too sure why this is. The subject usually comes up in the course of natural conversation. It’s not like I walk into a room full of strangers and blurt out, “Hey, guess what, everyone? I run!!!” I make it a point not be all preachy about it, and I never criticize the lifestyle choices of other people. There’s no reason for anyone to get defensive about their choice not to run. So why do many non-runners feel the need to try and get me to give up my evil running ways?

There is a lot of misinformation out there where running is concerned. Today I want to dust off my soapbox and hop on, if not to convince more people to at least give running a try, then at least to set the record straight.

Myth #1: Running is bad for your heart.
This myth is undoubtedly fuelled by the tragic and widely publicized deaths of runners participating in marathons and half-marathons. In the last half-marathon I ran, a 26-year-old man in apparent good health collapsed and died on the home stretch to the finish line. It is beyond sad, and these incidents can be alarming. But one only has to take a look at the numbers to know that the risk is very low. Out of almost eleven million marathon and half-marathon participants in the United States from 2000 to 2010, there were 42 fatal heart attacks. This translates to one death for every 259,000 runners – about half of the death rate from heart attacks in the general population. In other words, from a purely statistical standpoint, people who run are less likely to suffer cardiac arrest than people who don’t.

Myth #2: Running is bad for your knees.
Arguments in favour of this myth seem solid. When you consider the fact that the knees take a force of about eight times a runners’ bodyweight with each strike of the foot, it seems reasonable to conclude that wear and tear would ultimately win out. However, a number of recent studies suggest that not only does running not harm the joints, it may in fact help them. A person’s chances of developing arthritis or some other problem with their joints does not appear to be connected with whether or not they have run. I know many people who are still running well beyond their 70th birthdays with no ill effects to their knees, and I know people who have never run who have had knee problems.

Myth #3: Running doesn’t actually help you lose weight.
This myth is driven by some scientific algorithm I don’t understand that dictates what intensity of exercise makes you burn fat and what doesn’t. Whenever I try to read the theories surrounding this, my eyes glaze over, so all I can really go by is my own experience. When I took up running again after a break of about seven years, I was tipping the scales at almost 200 pounds. I was heavier than I had ever been in my entire life – and that included either of my two pregnancies. From the time I started running again until the time I ran my first half-marathon for autism – a period of about six months – I managed to shed about fifty pounds. My diet did not change significantly during that time – it was all down to the running.

Myth #4: It’s not safe for a woman to run on her own.
This really depends on a number of factors, like location, time of day, time of year, and so on. It is true that runners – women and men – need to consider safety when they are running. This topic is broad enough to merit its own blog post, but there are things that runners can do to ensure their safety. Some basic precautions are: be aware of your surroundings, know the area you are running in, make sure someone knows what route you are taking, stick to the beaten track, and make sure you have a means of communication with you, whether it’s a cell phone or quarters for a phone booth.

Myth #5: Running is boring.
I suppose for some people it might be. For me – and I daresay for most dedicated runners – there is far too much going on for boredom to set in. There’s all the clichéd stuff about trees and birds and fresh air – and there is merit to that. Early morning running in particular can be spectacular from an at-one-with-nature point of view. I love the feeling of running before the rest of the world gets going, when it’s only me, the open road, and the sunrise to which I am invariably treated. The air is clean early in the morning, before the traffic comes along to muck it up, and the sounds of nature are pure and beautiful. And quite apart from all of that, when I run I can I focus on all that is going on with my body. My heart race, my pace, how my legs are feeling. I take stock, re-evaluate, re-strategize, decide whether to speed up or slow down or throw in a burst of sprinting. I can marvel at what the running is doing for my mental health – the endorphin rush that gives a natural high, the stress relief, the fact that unlike the times spent at home, when I’m running I can actually start a thought and see it through to completion.

Do you run? Do you have strong feelings about running, either for it or against it? Have you come across any other myths about running?