Depression is an equal opportunity offender…

As I was waking up this morning, I read a sad news story about the late Saoirse Kennedy Hill, who died on August 1, 2019 of a drug and alcohol overdose. She was only 22 years old and studied communication at prestigious Boston College, in Boston, Massachusetts. Saoirse (pronounced Ser-sha) Kennedy Hill was the daughter of Courtney Kennedy Hill and the granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968.

Somehow, I didn’t read or hear about Ms. Hill’s death when it happened. I guess I was too busy getting ready for our latest trip to Scotland. Today’s news item initially confused me, because at first I thought she had just died yesterday. Then I clicked on a link that took me to an earlier news report about her demise at the Kennedy family’s compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Hill’s grandmother, Ethel Kennedy, still lives at the historic house, which has been in the family for many years. It was originally the home of Joseph P. Kennedy, who was the family’s patriarch.

Saoirse Kennedy Hill was the daughter of Irishman Paul Michael Hill of the Guildford Four. He was falsely accused of being involved in the Irish Republican Army Bombings and spent fifteen years in prison before he was released. In 1993, not long after he left prison, Paul Michael Hill and married Saoirse’s mother. Part of Saoirse’s childhood was spent in Ireland, and she was reportedly very proud of her Irish heritage. Her name means “freedom” in Gaelic. Unfortunately, she was not free of clinical depression, which she had once written about in a school essay. She claimed that depression had dogged her since her middle school years, and she was plagued by “bouts of deep sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on [her] chest.”

I know something about Saoirse’s struggles with depression. I spent most of my youth depressed, isolated, and anxious. Although I have always been one to crack jokes and laugh a lot, the truth is that for a good portion of my life, I’ve felt like shit. It wasn’t until I found the right antidepressant that I realized how heavy the burden was, and that I really didn’t have to go through life feeling like shit all of the time. It was at that point that I knew major depression is a real illness.

I remember when I first sought help for depression. The reactions from the people in my life were interesting. Some were genuinely surprised to know that I had a problem with depression and anxiety, especially since I laugh all the time and crack a lot of jokes. One man even told me, the day after I was diagnosed, that I was one of the happiest people he’d ever met. He was surprised when I told him that just the day before, I’d been prescribed my first bottle of Prozac (fluoxetene), which was one of the many drugs found in Saoirse Kennedy Hill’s system after she died of an overdose at her wealthy family’s homestead.

One of my relatives seemed doubtful that I could have depression… or that depression is a real problem that requires medical intervention. She seemed to be a member of the “get right with God crowd”– those people who think that mental illness is a result of sin or not having enough faith in Jesus. Another relative warned me not to use antidepressants as a “crutch”. She seemed to think antidepressants are “happy pills” that make people high, which they don’t. In fact, Prozac was a huge failure for me. It turned out my “happy pill” was Wellbutrin, and all it ever did was even out my moods, perk me up a bit, and make me feel less hopeless and helpless.

Still others tried to point out all I had going for me and a deep breath and splash of water to the face were all I needed. When I was getting treatment, I was young, reasonably attractive, and I had a college degree and international work experience. I also have musical talent, and back then, I was taking classes to try to develop it more… something I did as a method of feeling better about myself and the world. The music lessons worked, even though my dad decided to horn in on the action by signing up for lessons with the same teacher. That’s a rant for another day. 😉

It’s been a long time since I last felt horribly depressed. I haven’t taken antidepressants in about fifteen years. Sometimes, I think I would like to take them again, but I hate going to doctors, so I don’t bother. Instead, I drink more than I should, which I know isn’t a good solution.

Saoirse Kennedy Hill was also a drinker. In fact, she mixed alcohol with a long list of prescription drugs, including: methadone, a drug used to treat opioid use disorder; diazepam and nordiazepam, which have sedative effects; and fluoxetine and norfluoxetine, which are antidepressants. Based on the list of chemicals in her body, it appears that Kennedy Hill was trying very hard to feel better. It sounds like nothing was working for her anymore.

Once again, against my better judgment, I read the comments on this news. A lot of people judged Saoirse for being rich, beautiful, and privileged. More than one person wondered why this is such sad news when no one cares if a homeless person overdoses and dies on the street. I kind of expect these kinds of comments from the insensitive. A lot of them are rooted in jealousy and ignorance. But the one comment that made me stop and write this piece today was one left by a middle aged man, who wrote “It’s hard to imagine such a beautiful girl suffering from depression, and that’s a big part of the problem.”

On reading this comment again, I realize my first reaction to it was wrong. It initially seemed like he was saying that someone so beautiful (and Saoirse was very pretty) shouldn’t be depressed. But now that I’m fully awake, I see that he’s actually written that people don’t expect young, beautiful, rich women like Saoirse Kennedy Hill to have any problems, and that is a problem in and of itself.

I’m sure plenty of people were envious of Saoirse, who clearly enjoyed a lot of privileges and advantages in her life… although I really couldn’t say what it would be like to be her. Yes, she was a Kennedy, but the Kennedy family has been famously plagued by tragedies. And who knows what went on in her private life? I’ve read enough books by the children of wealthy people to know that coming from a rich family doesn’t guarantee a great childhood. This isn’t to say that Saoirse had a bad childhood so much as it is to say that I don’t know what her childhood was like. I can’t assume it was excellent simply because her family has money.

Reading about Saoirse Kennedy Hill’s death reminds me a bit of Margaux Hemingway’s story. Margaux Hemingway was similarly rich, beautiful, and privileged. She’d worked as a model and an actress, and was the sister of Mariel Hemingway and the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway. To look at her, you’d think she’d have everything in the world to live for. But, like Saoirse Kennedy Hill, Margaux Hemingway died too young of a drug overdose. Her badly decomposed body was found in her Santa Monica studio apartment. She was just 42 years old, having overdosed on phenobarbital. Her death was ruled a suicide, while Saoirse Kennedy Hill’s has been ruled an accident.

Well, anyway… I am no rich stunner like Saoirse Kennedy Hill or Margaux Hemingway were, but having experienced major depression, and having experienced the depression lifting after drug therapy, I know it’s a medical problem. Assuming that beauty and wealth should prevent depression is like saying that only poor and ugly people get cancer. Depression strikes all kinds of people from every walk of life. Some people can take medication and talk to a therapist and get better. A few lucky folks can rely on good nutrition, plenty of sleep, and exercise and feel the fog lift. Some unlucky people can’t get rid of depression no matter what they do, even if it seems like they have everything in the world to live for. Don’t even get me started on Robin Williams, who not only suffered from depression and anxiety, but also had Lewy Body Dementia, which my father also had. I don’t know if Robin Williams died due to his depression or the sheer craziness that comes from LBD, but a whole lot of people who know nothing about either subject want to call him selfish and cowardly for taking his own life.

I know it’s hard to understand, particularly if you’ve never experienced it, but generally speaking, getting rid of major depression isn’t as easy as simply willing yourself to feel better. That’s like trying to will yourself to get over a broken arm. Looking on the bright side is helpful, but most people who are depressed need help to get to the point at which they can see that a bright side is possible. Saoirse obviously had a lot of medical help in the form of prescription drugs, but in the end, they weren’t enough. It’s tragic that such a promising young woman was cut down so early in life. My condolences to her family.