Jason Rohde’s defence has two explicit goals: firstly to make the case that Susan was suicidal, and secondly, to cast reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s theory of events.
If we invert the defence case and pretend Van der Spuy is the prosecutor, and Susan’s ghost is on the stand accused of murdering her self, could Van der Spuy get a conviction based on Jason’s and Dr Peter’s testimony [assuming the latter was admissible]?
In true crime, God – and the devil – are in the details. But often, especially in fairly simple cases like this one, the court gets sucked into the forest, and once deep within the verges of the treeline, we no longer see the wood for the trees. Once we hover outward and upward, like I drone, higher and higher, what do the woods reveal that ultimately decides this case on way or the other?
It’s quite simple. The vast majority of people who commit suicide suffer from depression. The number is about 2/3rds. That ought to be enough, but allow me to sharpen the details of the depression forest, and how it ties into a genuine suicide scenario.
- More than 66% of people who succeed in killing themselves have severe depression at the time of their deaths.
- One out of every 16 people [6.25%] diagnosed with depression, go on to kill themselves.
- People with major depression are 20 times more likely to kill themselves than the general population. 20 times more likely it’s twice, or three times or fives times more likely. 20 times more likely is a LOT more likely, like saying you’re more likely to die of a car accident near a road than away from one.
- Those who have had multiple battles with depression are at a greater risk.
- Depression and drug addiction of any kind raise the odds of suicide even further.
In order to make the psychological case for Susan committing suicide, we need proof that she had depression. Not that she was depressed. Depression. Depression is a totally different ball game to a temporary mood swing. A depressed person can feel better when circumstances change, someone in a depression is stuck and can’t fix, ameliorate or escape their malaise, no matter what they do.
The University of California provides the following colloquial definition of depression:
Everyone feels down at times. The breakup of a relationship or a bad grade can lead to low mood. Sometimes sadness comes on for no apparent reason. Is there any difference between these shifting moods and what is called depression? Anyone who has experienced an episode of depression would probably answer yes. Depression, versus ordinary unhappiness, is characterized by longer and deeper feelings of despondency and the presence of certain characteristic symptoms (see below). This distinction is important, because in severe cases, depression can be life threatening, with suicide as a possible outcome. Depressed people may also fail to live up to their potential, doing poorly in school and staying on the social margins. Depression is frequently ignored or untreated; the condition often prevents people from taking steps to help themselves. This is unfortunate, as effective help is available.
I realise the above definition isn’t very scientific, but it’s adequate for our purposes. There is a huge difference between feeling depressed and depression. Someone suffering from depression may clearly feel depressed, going through different coils of darkness and mental misery. Although a depressed person can become someone who suffers from depression, being depressed isn’t the same thing as depression.
In 1929, the Great Depression [economic depression mind you] struck America and the world. People didn’t commit suicide immediately, in 1929, following the stock market crash. It took a few years for the economic depression to addle the mind – men lost their jobs, felt crap, fought with their wives, felt crap, lost their homes, and then once the depression set in and became severe hopelessness, that’s when tens of thousands of Americans elected to kill themselves. Suicide fever peaked in America in 1932, 3 years after the crash, at 23 000. The rest of the world also showed a similar rising tide.
It’s a like comparing a cough or a sniffle to having the flu. It might become the flu, or it might now. When you begin to have symptoms of a cough, that’s different from actually having the influenza and being bedridden, completely taken over by the symptoms. Clearly there is a link between the cough and the flu, and someone with flu may cough.
What we want to know is where along the spectrum was Susan. Depressed, or suffering from depression? Coughing, nose running, feeling tired, or head aching, fever and a full-on debilitating mental flu that overcomes the whole body – mind, energy, motivation etc.
The above quote suggests that depression involves “long and deep feelings of despondency.” Did Susan have long and deep feelings of despondency? Clearly, she did. So clearly she had depression, didn’t she?
I don’t think Susan had depression, though she had good reasons to feel depressed and despondent. There is subtlety in the idea of “long feelings of despondency”. What that means is these feelings persist, they endure for a long period of time and eventually these anxieties begin to swarm and chew away at one’s resilience, gnawing away at one’s spirit, one’s esteem, one’s identity and one’s natural state of bliss.
Depression is difficult to beat precisely when the message of the depression is self-evident. It’s difficult to bullshit depression. Depression has a good reason for being there, and is an urgent message to the Life Force saying “please stop doing this to me, you’re killing me by continuing to go down this path…”
In order to disprove Jason Rohde’s version that Susan was suicidal, we have to know how depression works, we have to understand the psychological mechanism, we have to know ourselves and the circumstances of the case. Once again, we can appreciate all of this from the perspective of the drone hovering over the woods, rather than getting lost in the trees. What we want to know is how severe was Susan’s malaise? Was it very severe, severe, or severe but okay? What is the extent of her woods, the woods of her depression? Does it cover endless hillsides, or is a forest in a particular area? Is it a tall forest, a thick forest or an overgrown copse here and there needing to be tended to?
If Susan’s depression was severe she wouldn’t be able to face a fucking convention. She wouldn’t be able to travel. She would be on social margins, not drifting through them, flirting, dancing and confronting. If Susan’s depression was severe, she may have reached the stage where she’d begun to neglect herself and no longer seek treatment. Or she might become addicted to her medications. None of these things were happening with Susan. Depression makes a person unable to seek help for themselves, and yet we see Susan was talking to her psychologist while she was at the convention!
One strong argument the defence was able to introduce was that Susan sought help after attending a talk on depression and suicide. Does that mean Susan was depressed and suicidal?
Clearly, it means it could. But using the same cough-flu analogy, calling the doctor [a doctor who specialises in treating influenza] when you have a sniffle doesn’t necessarily mean you have the flu, although it could. It’s a great argument to introduce doubt, but it doesn’t make the argument that Susan had depression. There’s no argument that Jason’s affair depressed or, or that it was extremely depression, especially that weekend. The argument is, could a depressing moment cause a distressed woman to suddenly commit suicide. Again, this is like saying, can a cough lead to flu. It can.
The fact is, the suicide narrative doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The other side of the equation is Jason. When we add that aspect to the narrative, still using the flu analogy, then what we have is this: could someone with a cough get the flu, or did she already have the flu when she was in a room filled with people with the flu. The answer to that isn’t that Susan was suicidal, but that the flu that inflected her came from someone in her environment.
From the same University of California source we get these signs of depression:
- Loss of pleasure in virtually all activities
- Feelings of fatigue or lack of energy
- Frequent tearfulness
- Difficulty with concentration or memory
- A change in sleep pattern, with either too much or too little sleep; the person may wake up in the night or early morning and not feel rested the next day
- An increase or decrease in appetite, with a corresponding change in weight
- Markedly diminished interest in sex
- Feelings of worthlessness and self-blame or exaggerated feelings of guilt
- Unrealistic ideas and worries (e.g., believing no one like them or that they have a terminal illness when there is no supporting proof)
- Hopelessness about the future
- Thoughts of suicide
Susan in some way or another suffered from all of these signs, but let’s face it, many of us do too. You can feel hopeless thoughts [for example about the future of South Africa, or at the prospect of going to work after a weekend, or when Elton Jantjies comes onto the field] without necessarily feeling depressed whatsoever. Having feelings of fatigue or lack of energy may be completely normal after a long day at work. It may have nothing to do with being depressed. A change in sleep pattern doesn’t make one feel happier, but may have to do with issues besides being depressed.
In other words, those signs of depression are almost worthless except to say in SEVERELY depressed people, many of these symptoms are not only present, but severely and permanently present. One could say some of these symptoms individually could become life threatening, such as weight loss, or sleep deprivation. In one area above all, Susan did have severe problems, and that was with sleep deprivation.
Overall, Susan had many of the symptoms and Jason knew she did. Wasn’t he counting on the evidence to work in his favour, assuming that Susan was depressed enough to reasonably make a case for a suicically depressed person [someone with depression]?
In sum then, this case is about whether we’re able to discern the difference between actual depression and something else that’s a few trees but not quite a wood. Can we tell the difference?
When you examine the #Rohde “depression” thread on Twitter there are a few indicators that Susan either was on the cusp of developing severe [suicidal] depression, or had just begun to develop it. That may work for the accused’s case, but even someone who has just developed depression isn’t necessarily at risk of suicide. It’s like saying just at the moment the flu hits you, do you take sick leave, jump into bed and shut out the world? Typically there is a period of resistance and denial, of fighting back, especially in the initial stages of the more severe malaise.
The fact that Susan was receiving treatment actively, right to the time of her death, clearly shows she wanted to beat the thing. Compare that to someone infected with deadly bird flu – H5N1 – who is so compromised they can’t gurgle to a doctor for help because they’re already in the process of dying.
The difficulty for the Judge is that there is a niggly sense that there just possibly is an argument [not in terms of the evidence, but in terms of the psychology] for Susan being depressed and having depression.
I would argue that that niggly sense isn’t enough. It’s unconvincing. It’s a clear cough, but it’s not becoming the flu, not until that cough is a lot worse. The irony is that incredible as it sounds, there is more evidence Jason was severely depressed than that Susan was.
We’ve already seen. however, that Judge Salie-Hlophe didn’t fall for these shenanigans, which portends well for her not falling for the suicide narrative.
It must be said, if Jason Rohde did have severe depression in February this year, he made a full recovery within weeks, perhaps even days. There’s no sign of that depression now, if it was ever genuine to begin with, and there was none when he was on the stand in late May [just two months later] either.
Now, real depression doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t turn on like a switch, just as one doesn’t just suddenly get the flu. It doesn’t turn off quickly either, just as flu doesn’t disappear quickly. It’s a process.
The expert psychiatrist who’s entire narrative was thrown out diagnosed Susan with major depression. Again, I’m not sure if Susan could go from being depressed before the weekend to MAJOR DEPRESSION over the course of three days, or one particular evening, at Spier. In Jason’s version, Susan effectively went from depressed to MAJOR DEPRESSION between 03:00 and 07:00/08:00 on July 24th.
In order for depression to wear you down and make you suicidal, it needs time to infest and body and mind. It needs to push out the vital aspects, and spread its spiderwebs of malaise. Susan’s risk of suicide was higher, but so is anyone’s immediate after a break-up.
In the end, the #1 reason Susan didn’t have depression, let alone severe depression, at the time of her death is laughably obvious. If she had depression she would have been using anti-depressants. I had my ears pricked for that one word throughout the testimony. I was gratified when Dr. Peter listed the many medications Susan was on. Anti-anxiety this, sleep-remedy that, this and that but absolutely no anti-depressants.
You’d think someone with depression, and someone receiving treatment from it actively, and especially someone with MAJOR depression would be on the most obvious depression-related medication. Antidepressants. But she wasn’t. Why wasn’t she? Antidepressants don’t make you happier, they make you less sad. In some way they aggravate the original symptoms, such as loss of energy and fatigue. Susan was a fit and healthy woman. She wouldn’t want to mess up either her libido or her fitness by choking her body with toxic mind benders. Antidepressants are in that field of medication, just like flu medications, that can actually alter your mood, actually make you feel sick if you took them when you were healthy to begin with.
In the end, what we want to know is what Susan’s ghost would say on the stand if she could speak. If Van der Spuy asked her if she murdered herself, if she was suicidal, if had depression, the simplest response to dispel all this is one we already know. Susan herself didn’t think she had depression, and neither did her psychologist, otherwise she would have been on anti-depressants. She wasn’t. Susan Rohde didn’t kill herself.
The Rebecca Zahau case is a fascinating parallel to the Rohde case, and vice versa. My book on Zahau, the definitive book on this famous American case which also involved the death of a six-year-old boy, is available at this link.