(Robin Williams, The way I will always try to remember him)
After the tragic suicide of Robin Williams I wanted to talk about mental health, which is really about talking about mental unhealth. Williams was so widely loved by so many people, myself included, that his battle with depression, a losing battle as it turned out, should serve as confirmation of what most of us know: depression doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have, you can still feel alone. It doesn’t matter how many people love you, you can still feel unloved. And it doesn’t matter who you are, you can always still feel like nobody. This is why I want to talk about a topic that is very important to me: the unfortunate link between suicide and mental illness.
I hear a lot of people say that suicide is a “coward’s way out” or it’s “the most cowardly thing a person can do”. Especially on a day like today I think we really need to address this idea because it is really holding us back as a culture. Though there can be many reasons that a person might end their own life but the most common one by far is mental illness, more specifically, depression. Depression is an awful disorder that can so profoundly effect your life that you live in misery every day. Mental illnesses like depression need to be taken seriously because they can kill.
Depression comes with the added hardship of our mass cultural delusion that you can do something about it. I’ve seen and heard people doling out advice on how to treat depression and the advice runs along the lines of “go out with some of your friends”, “get some exercise”, “just think happy thoughts”, or “do something to help someone else”. Let me be the first to tell you, if it were that easy to cure depression no one would have depression. Some people suffer depression so crippling that they can’t bring themselves to get out of bed, put on clothes, shower, or do anything at all; to tell a person who is suffering that badly to go out with friends and think happy thoughts is worse than useless, it’s ignorant and insensitive. Don’t be that person.
Clinical depression is not a mood swing, it is an illness where a person’s brain chemistry doesn’t work properly and it can dominate every aspect of a person’s life until it is treated. I shouldn’t need to say this but I still run into people that say they had depression and they got better; it usually goes something like “I had depression once when I lost my job.”; that person was “depressed” they did not HAVE depression. Telling a person who suffers from depression that you understand what they’re living with because you were really sad once is a lot like telling a person with cancer that you understand because “I’m a Cancer too!”. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t as though these people are trying to be rude, I’ve heard things like this from some of he nicest people I know, but sometimes you can succeed without trying which is why it is so important to talk about mental illness, because nothing cures ignorance like on open mind and a informative conversation.
Clinical depression largely suffers from bad terminology; it should be called “your-brain-will-make-your-entire-life-hurt” syndrome. Being depressed is only one symptom of clinical depression, there are many others. Symptoms of the disorder can include anxiety, irritability, irrational and extreme mood swings, anger, panic, as well as a whole host of physical symptoms as well because, guess what? Your brain controls a lot of your physical processes. Serious cases of depression can sink a person so low into the depths of sorrow, fear, and hopelessness that death seems preferable to the pain and misery of living. A person who has sunk into a hole like that who takes their own life isn’t a coward, they’re ill. People also like to accuse these people of being selfish because of the pain they inflict on their loved ones; again, the reality is much different, a person in the depths of depression doesn’t just believe their life has no value, they also believe their loved one’s lives would be better if they were dead. That is definitely not a normal thought but when your brain chemistry doesn’t work properly abnormal thoughts seem normal.
I think that the main reason we need to stop saying suicide is cowardly, beyond the obvious fact that you don’t know what brought a person to that point, is because it is a cop-out. If a mental illness can be so bad, so difficult, so unrelentingly crushing that a person embraces death rather than continuing a life of pain we have to ask, could we have done anything to help. When we don’t talk about mental illness we prop up the culture of ignorance that puts barriers in the way of all of the ill people that need help; the culture of silence we’ve built around mental disorders makes the ill believe they shouldn’t talk about their pain. We should be doing the opposite, we need to talk about mental illness, in fact we need to talk and talk and talk about mental illness until it becomes so normal a subject that anyone will feel safe enough to say they might have one. When we stay silent we keep the ill in the closet where they hear people constantly say how mental disorders are easy to change and that people who succumb to the pain are selfish cowards and it makes them afraid to tell anyone because they believe it’s their own fault. When we call these people cowards we collectively absolve ourselves of their struggle, we deny any role we may have had in their death.
Calling a suicide victim a coward means it’s their fault, it was caused by a flaw in their character not a flaw in our culture, we are not responsible. It’s a very easy way out for us as well, they’re dead so they can’t protest, can’t set the record straight, as far as anyone will say, we’re right. We call suicide victims cowardly because we don’t want to consider the possibility that we stood by in blissful ignorance while their mental illness ate them alive. The reality is, however, shifting the blame to the one person that couldn’t possibly defend themselves is the true act of cowardice. If we’re going to change the world for all of those suffering from mental illness we have to stop saying the sick are cowards instead of sick. We need to stop throwing names at each other, stop blaming the victims, grow up and start honestly talking about how we may not understand mental illnesses but we need to talk about it. It’s too late for Robin Williams, but the millions of people in our midst, suffering in silence need to talk to someone and, who knows, you may be the only person they feel that they can open up to about it.
You’d be surprised, a conversation could save a life.
(The way I am remembering him right now)