This afternoon, visionary Luke Sklar is being laid to rest. After more than three years of experiencing severe depression.
I’ve known of Luke for many years as one half of famed Sklar Wilton & Associates but I’ve only personally known him for about a year and a half. In that time, I was his social media guru. He’d come to me for help figuring out all the strange and ever-changing nuances of Twitter and LinkedIn. He wanted to stay in touch with the current news, and he wanted to take advantage of new technologies. He was my regular proof that old dogs (though at 63, he wasn’t old at all) can learn new tricks, should learn new tricks, should be eager to learn new tricks. He had a sweet smile, a goofy grin, and kind words for everyone in the office whether they’d worked with him for thirty years or thirty days.
Luke was my occasional reminder that people who have depression can get better and that there is hope.
My first instinct on hearing the news was to share it with my colleagues and the rest of the industry who knew and loved him well. But I couldn’t. The inevitable question would come about – how did he die. And we all know that you can’t talk about depression. It’s not like cancer or heart disease or stroke. Shhh….. it’s depression. Don’t talk about it. It’s shameful. The most I could do was post a tweet begging people who are contemplating suicide to seek help. (Please, please, please seek help. We want you here, we need you here.)
So in the wake of this horrible news, I am grateful that Luke was not ashamed of his illness. I am grateful that we are allowed to say depression took his life. I am grateful that more people will realize the true insidious nature of this disease, and that mental health is as important as any other type of health. Amazingly brilliant people who’ve built award-winning businesses filled with amazing employees get mental illnesses too.
Clinical depression comes in all forms. For some people, medication helps tremendously but it still doesn’t cure the illness. The day to day sadness and hopelessness continues to be a minute by minute struggle. Hospital stays are frequent and long, and suicide watch is ever present. Their caregivers struggle to encourage them to live, to eat, to stand up, to finish a puzzle meant for a child, to colour a simple drawing for more than two minutes. They might disappear from social gatherings and you wonder whether they got bored of spending time with you. Or if they’ve moved. In reality, you’ll never know they have depression because you aren’t in their extremely tight circle of people who must know. Shame continues to be an undeserved sentiment that lingers around mental illness.
For other people, medication can take away the incessant life-threatening feelings and make presenting oneself to the world possible. Medication can even make other people think a depressed person is in perfect health. Laughing, joking, playing, working, all in seemingly wonderful health. You’d never guess they have depression because they are the life of the party any time you’re around them. You don’t see them after they close the door behind you and enter a world where the down is far more down that you can even imagine. All you see is their funny tweets, their hilarious Facebook posts, their goofy grin. You think you know. You think you can tell. But I guarantee you cannot. They’ve perfected the act so well that even their best friends could never guess. And then you never see them again because depression kills.
Luke was a firm supporter of Sick Not Weak, an organization dedicated to helping people understand that mental illness is an sickness, not a weakness. Their goal is to create a community of people who come to gain strength and stay to give strength, to help both sufferers and the people who care about them, and most of all to get as many people as possible, in a loud, firm, confident voice to share the words “I am SickNotWeak.”
I know a few people in our tight community of market researchers who have been brave enough to share their experiences with depression. I am truly grateful to you for your bravery and willingness to openly share your experiences. You are helping to save lives.
I know other people who have depression but I can’t talk about them. I’m still not allowed. But I can talk about Luke. You can talk about Luke. Please spread the word that mental illness is an illness. That you are sick, not weak.
When I was completing courses for a Phd at York University in Toronto, I had to apply to the psychology department for special permission to take the graduate psychology ethics class. Since my focus was experimental research, more specifically data quality of online surveys, and not counseling ill patients, the ethics class wasn’t deemed necessary for me. Now, years later, I recall one story the professor shared of his own life as a counseling psychologist.
A gentleman showed up for counseling one day. He was depressed and, at times, suicidal. He desperately needed someone to help him through a difficult period. The psychologist took his case and they began weekly counseling sessions. Over time, however, the man became unable to pay the psychologist’s bill. (In Canada, psychologists are not always covered by health plans.)
The psychologist knew that this man must continue his treatment or suicide was a clear possibility. He decided to offer his services for free to ensure the safety of this man. Besides, pro bono work is something that every psychologist (and everyone) should do.
But, the man had pride. He did not want to be a charity case. He didn’t want to take advantage of the psychologist’s good nature. He was a responsible person who paid for his services. He did not mooch off people. As a result, he refused to accept free psychological treatment. But refusing treatment was not acceptable to the psychologist. How could he sleep at night knowing it was simply money preventing a man from receiving essential, life saving services.
So between the two of them, they figured out a solution. Every week, the man would buy a cup of coffee for the psychologist. Sure, the coffee only cost a buck and that was nowhere near the price of the counselling sessions. But it was a barter of goods meaning the service wasn’t really free. On the other hand, accepting the coffee could be considered a bribe under the psychologist’s code of ethics. In this case, the psychologist resigned that yes, he was going to break the code of ethics. But, weighing a weekly cup of coffee against one more week of life, his moral code let this transgression pass.
Though a cup of coffee saved this man’s life, it could have cost the psychologist his, for had this transgression been discovered, he could have lost his license.
What would you have done? Save a life or lose your livelihood?