Monday, January 30, 2012

Deciphering the Difference Between Depression and Dog Issues

Lately a lot of press has been given to the story of Nick Santino's suicide. Santino was an unemployed soap actor and relatively unknown to anyone who hasn't watched All My Children or Guiding Light.

The story according to news media begins when his apartment building's board passed a breed-specific rule banning pit bull-type dogs. Santino's dog Rocco was grandfathered in and was excluded from the ban. The board began getting complaints about Rocco barking and behaving badly that friend and family sources say were unfounded. (The Daily Mail reported that a veterinarian told Santino that Rocco was displaying an increase in aggressive behavior.) Santino felt harassed by building management. His solution was to visit his vet and have Rocco euthanized last Tuesday.

Over the next few hours after putting Rocco to sleep, Santino became more despondent and on Wednesday of last week was found dead in his apartment. He had committed suicide, leaving behind a note that read,

"Today I betrayed my best friend. Rocco trusted me and I failed him. He didn't deserve this."

Animal advocates and anti-Breed Specific Legislation groups all over the nation have grabbed this story as an example of the enormous impact BSL has on the human-animal bond. What many fail to see is that BSL is only a minor factor in this tragedy. Santino was suffering from depression with suicidal tendencies. The real issue behind this story that is not being addressed is the serious issue of suicide and depression.

Major Depression Disorder (or Clinical Depression) is a serious mental illness that affects the way someone perceives their world. It affects a person's health, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This year alone, approximately 15 million will be diagnosed with MDD. Symptoms include depressed mood or sadness, poor concentration, sleep disturbances, fatigue, appetite disturbances, excessive guilt and suicidal ideation or preparations. Left untreated, episodes can last a few months or even years. Prolonged episodes of depression can severely impact the ability of a person to function in their daily life, leading to isolation, thought distortion, and in some cases suicide. Suicide is the seventh-leading cause of death for men and the fifteenth cause of death for women in the United States.

The first casualty of depression is often rational thought and perceptions about daily interactions. Santino's feelings of harassment may have been legitimate, but through the lens of depression were magnified so greatly that he no doubt felt paranoid. His problem solving skills and belief that he had any ability to impact what was happening to him made him seek a solution that seems unthinkable to most dog lovers. Many wonder why Santino didn't consider all the other options. Why not rehome his dog? Find a rescue group that might help with training or placement? Or even contact a bully-breed advocacy group to help him educate his apartment's board of directors on their discriminatory policy. The simple explanation is Santino would not have seen any of these possibilities.

One of the hallmark signs of suicide preparation is the dispersement of valuables items and possessions. Euthanizing Rocco could have also been an irrational way of saying goodbye in preparation for his plan. Or maybe even Santino felt he was protecting his dog from the hurt and mental anguish he was living with. After returning from the veterinarian's office, Santino even began dispersing Rocco's valuables, giving rawhides and treats to other animal lovers in his building.

People suffering from depression are often burdened with a tremendous sense of guilt. To an outside observer, this guilt often seems unwarranted, but to the depressed person, it feels intensely real. In the case where his decisions did leave him as the one who was solely responsible for Rocco's death, his guilt would be severe. Combined with the havoc depression plays with the ability to think clearly, possible suicide ideation leading up to this event, it is not surprising Santino's declaration of guilt was the last message left to his family and friends.

It is a lot easier to blame Santino's suicide on the breed specific policies that played a part in his decision to euthanize his best friend rather than look at suicide and depression. The BSL angle of this story lets us feel like there was "a reason" behind Santino's death. Addressing the issue of depression and suicide is far more complicated, nuanced, and scary. Depression is an invisible illness that we as outsiders can't control or completely understand. Focusing on the apartment board's no pit bull policy gives us a false sense of control, as if Santino would not have committed suicide had this policy not been in effect. Sadly, had this policy not been enacted, Santino would have just been one of the nearly 39,000 people who die from suicide each year.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of suicidal behavior , please call the 24-hour suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website for resources in your area.

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