The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

UTRGV School of Medicine

The Open Road: UTRGV Focused on the Future

A tendency to melancholy, let it be observed, is a misfortune, not a fault. - Abraham Lincoln, September 1841

It is known that our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, suffered from depression. In the book Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Wolf Shenk (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), one could make the case that he suffered from bipolar depression. While he received treatment (with mercury – a known neurotoxin), he cycled in and out of depression throughout his life. More importantly, he recognized it in others and wrote consoling notes to many.

In his life, while clearly struggling, Lincoln never attempted suicide. With 800,000 people completing a suicide each year, one has to ask: Why did Lincoln never attempt suicide?

What, then, can we learn from our 16th President?

Just about everyone’s abuelita has had a possible answer, "No hay mal que por bien no venga." Loosely translated: There is no bad thing that will keep good from coming.

In the worst of the worst despair, Lincoln’s ability to cope with his depression was like no other. He was observed to use any and all means available to him – work, humor, religion – even willing himself to live. How did he use these traits as tools for survival? His intellect allowed him to observe that his own depression, even if it lasted for months, would pass.

And here we are, 174 years from his statement about “melancholy,” living through the excitement of the Best Week Ever. One of the key events was the Tour de Valley, a symbolic bicycle ride that departed from UTRGV’s Edinburg and Brownsville campuses to meet in the middle at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen.

What would Lincoln say about that? I would guess he would say, “Awesome!” Awesome because he believed one needed to work through one’s agonizing moments, even if one had no desire nor motivation to do so. Staying active, even if going through the motions, is critically important. Anyone who has been an in-patient for treatment of depression knows that one is not allowed to sit alone in one’s hospital room. Even if passively attending group therapy, one must participate.

Is this only for psychiatry? No.

Take someone either acutely ill, (as in a motor vehicle accident) or chronically ill (an elderly person with a pneumonia requiring mechanical ventilation in an ICU for a long time). From time to time during your visits to them, physical therapy will come in and put them through passive range-of-motion exercises. Why? Because the old adage is true: If you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s true for young or old; there’s a loss of muscle mass during a medical or surgical hospitalization.

The same is true for mental activation, and it was true for Abraham Lincoln, as well. President Theodore Roosevelt noted that life "preeminently and distinctly embodied all that is most American in the American character ... not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life." It was very true about President Lincoln.

And the cycling has another important meaning. As in past years, the World Health Organization’s International Association for Suicide Prevention hosts the “World Suicide Prevention Day Cycle Around the Globe.” No matter where you are, the challenge is to collectively cycle the circumference of the globe – 24,901 miles or 40,075 km – and to have participants cycling on every continent – whether on a stationary bike, in the gym, or on the road – trying to beat the previous year’s record.

Now … what if Tour de Valley could become our contribution in the Rio Grande Valley to mark the national and international observance of suicide prevention? What would it mean?

For one, it would help raise awareness that suicide can be prevented. We can dispel the myths that abound about suicide and how it occurs. Just as there are universal precautions to prevent infections, inclusive of AIDS, there also are universal precautions to prevent suicide. We need to make sure we all know them and act accordingly – just like with infections.

You need to reach out and openly listen, showing someone (especially someone vulnerable and at risk for suicide) that you care. We know that hopelessness and isolation are a deadly combination. Staying connected inoculates against someone feeling all alone (not just feeling lonely – but alone) and has a positive impact.

Each of us needs to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness of any type. We need to reduce the resistance to change. And we have to implement any and all strategies to improve well-being, happiness and remission from mental disorders.

We would like your feedback on this. Tell us if you think this is an important event for our community, and if you believe it could be developed as an annual event.

You can send us your thoughts at SOM@UTRGV.edu. We’re eager to hear from you.

And one last thing, although we won’t be cycling the globe this year on Sept. 10, please observe the day by lighting a candle by a window at precisely 8 p.m., and leave it lit until midnight:

https://www.iasp.info/wspd/light_a_candle_on_wspd_at_8PM.php

This, too, is a WHO suicide prevention day remembrance for those who have died and those who have survived. It’s a way to show your support for suicide prevention and solidarity for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.