It’s time we accepted that depression is a terminal illness

For Robin Williams, depression was a terminal illness. He also, his wife has revealed, suffered from Parkinson’s disease. These two problems are far more connected than most people know: for many sufferers the first signs of Parkinson’s, often ten years or more before the more readily recognized abnormal movements are seen, are those of a depressive illness. Why? Because the abnormal brain chemistry of the two illnesses is essentially the same.

But it is a grave mistake to assume that Williams must have killed himself because he couldn’t face the onset of Parkinson’s. He killed himself because he suffered from depression. Suicide is the final symptom of a mental illness. The prescribed instruction of ‘don’t kill yourself’ is as useful as telling someone with a cold not to cough. It is also an illness that is startlingly undetected, hidden and untreated, as the new President of The Royal College of Psychiatrists explained this week in an interview for the Guardian.

Depression is terminal. Depression kills. It is time we understand that and do more about it.

Dr Julius Bourke is a clinical lecturer and honorary consultant psychiatrist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

  • maryann26

    Nothing will be done about it or any other mental illness. Other mental illness kill people too. It is a pity mental illness is so neglected, and I do not expect that to change any time soon.

  • T Hal

    Is there clear physiological pathology justifying the use of “disease” in a biomedical sense for depression? What are the precise biomarkers that clinical tests use to determine with high diagnostic accuracy that a patient has the “disease” depression? In the many, many years I’ve asked these and related questions of psychiatrists and psychologists, none has ever offered any answer backed by a body of biomedical evidence. Perhaps this is one reason international psychological boards have slowly been replacing the descriptor “disease” with the vaguer term “condition.”