Whenever there is a suicide due to depression, people have a tendency to act shocked. However, it's interesting to me that people are so shocked, given the large number of people in the U.S. who suffer from depression (one in ten, according to the CDC, to be exact). When someone in the public eye commits suicide due to depression, such as the beloved artist Robin Williams did recently, everyone says, "Let's DO something about it!". Yet, people still don't know what to do. They are left feeling helpless. They don't know what to do because so many of them simply don't understand depression. The only things, I believe, that we can do, are to stop touting 'positivity' as the only solution to our problems, and to offer more compassion to others on a daily basis.
As a sufferer from time to time of mild bouts of depression myself, I have observed a few things about society and depression. Depression is still stigmatized in the U.S., and there is a hefty market for selling positivity. I myself was a big believer in "The Secret" (the film, I hadn't read the book) when it came out, until I realized that simply 'making myself happy' all the time was unrealistic and harmful to my own mental state. I ended up repressing things and then just being angrier or sadder about them later.
I realize that from a biological perspective, depressed people are the weaker links in the pack. They are less able to cope with the hardships and emotional distresses in life; therefore, their chances of survival may be less. In modern day society, on a social level, this translates to: sad people = no fun.
So, why are we surprised when depressed people hide away from the world and don't want to talk to others about their problems? When people are encouraged at every turn to drop the negativity from their lives, including 'negative' people, why would a depressed person want to be open about it? Simply put: no one wants to be the downer, because no one else wants to be downed.
Furthermore, it's my belief that most people really, truly want to attain happiness (this being defined as the prolonged feeling of joy). The problem is that the brand of happiness people are pedaling is mostly unattainable, and in my opinion, can actually lead to more depression. This positive, "complaint-free" world that people are talking about may actually make us less empathetic. It promotes a society in which we don't really care about each other; all we care about is our own pursuit of constant, heart-bursting joy. While we can attain these feelings from time to time, and perhaps some feel them more than others, it is simply unrealistic to think that you can be insanely happy every single day and moment of your life. Books that tout the 'power of positive thinking' often make it seem that we can have control over all of our feelings all the time. However, those suffering from depression cannot control their feelings.
That being said, here is the thing that people who don't suffer from depression really, really, really really really need to understand: depression is not simply sadness. People who are clinically depressed cannot simply will away the depression, or choose not to feel those feelings. I repeat: people who suffer from depression don't choose to be depressed.
In my personal experience with depression, it has come on rather suddenly, without warning. For me, I've identified that any bouts of depression I have had have tended to coincide with situations in which I have felt completely out of control, usually in times of extreme change in my life.
Here's another thing that people don't always realize about depression: feelings of depression aren't just mental; they are physical. There is an actual feeling of a weight on your chest, and you just want to cry all the time, or maybe you become too exhausted to even do that. There can even be horrible images or thoughts that creep into your mind involuntarily. Sometimes, it makes you not want to, or be literally unable to do anything but sleep.
That being said, people who suffer from depression can do a few things to help themselves a bit to avoid more extreme episodes and fluctuations, as I've personally found. For me, exercising regularly, avoiding stimulants and depressants (such as alcohol and caffeine), eating a well-balanced diet, and getting enough sleep are helpful to my mental state (as they are to people who don't suffer from depression, too). I've also found meditation to be beneficial for me personally. However, even these aren't always enough to help.
Often, for those who suffer from depression, therapy in combination with medication are needed in addition to lifestyle maintenance. Just as those who suffer from hypothyroidism need treatment, people who suffer from depression also need treatment. Even then, some people can't escape it.
So, what CAN we do as a society to help those with depression?
1) Be open to people, and to hearing a real response to a question. Often, we ask people how they're doing, but we don't want to hear the real answer. Some people may just want to have a casual conversation, to feel connected to another person. Be open to chatting. Sometimes, I know that we don't want to hear people's life stories; it feels awkward, we don't have the time, whatever. Still, you can't imagine how much you might be helping someone by just listening to them. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable and you can't or don't want to listen, refer the person to someone who could help them, such as a community counselor or therapist.
2) If a family member of yours is depressed, don't treat him or her like a leper. A crucially important thing to know is that as much as you want to, it's important not to try to 'snap them out of it'. People with mild depression will come out of it in their own time, but what they really need is just for you to be there, listen to them, love them, and tell them that it will all be okay. I'm not saying don't be happy, but even the best intended clowning around may not be what the person needs at the time. What's more, it most likely will just make them feel obligated to fake 'happy' feelings around you and not let you know when they're in real pain because they're afraid they won't be accepted by you when they're down.
3) Pay attention. If someone who is close to you suddenly starts sleeping for long periods of time, having manic episodes, or acting generally out of character, ask what's up. If they aren't being responsive, you might have to step it up to get them the help that they need--which means insisting that they see someone.
4) Accept that a loved one's depression isn't your fault, so that you don't feel guilty when you can't get them out of it. No matter what (unless you're being abusive towards someone), their depression isn't your making; it's an illness. It isn't your responsibility to get them into it or out of it, but it is your responsibility to be there and love them through it, even when it gets tough.
That's my two cents on the matter, from my own life experience. For the record, I, too, love being joyful and contented. Who doesn't? I do the best I can to keep depression and anxiety (which I also suffer from, more severely than the depression) at bay with my life habits. Still, when I'm feeling 'negative' feelings, I allow myself to feel those feelings, and to express them to my loved ones. I don't think I'd want to live on an Earth where there is no compassion from the people I love.
In conclusion, I think that this culture of 'positivity' we've created has become an excuse to further insulate ourselves from other people's feelings, and our own--and we need to be aware of that before we become completely alienated from one another.