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On Robin Williams, mental illness, and the media’s cluelessness about suicide

Sections: Comedy, Essays, Movies, TV

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It’s been a week since the shocking, tragic passing of American icon Robin Williams, and everyone still seems atRobin_Williams-2 a loss when it comes to processing the circumstances of his death. Williams, a comedy legend of stage, screen, and television, took his own life at the age of 63 after a particularly severe bout of depression and the early onset of Parkinson’s disease. Williams was a legend of stage and screen, widely celebrated for his rapid fire improv abilities, manic energy, and surprisingly nuanced and vulnerable dramatic turns in more serious films.

He was a man of incredible range and depth, whose constant need to entertain was, by all accounts, part and parcel with his inner struggles with addiction and clinical depression. Depressed people often feel the need to be constantly “on,” to entertain the world outside their brain in order to throw off the scent of their own sadness, to seem “normal,” to seem “just like everyone else.” Williams’ public persona was the prime example of the desire to always be “on,” to always make ‘em laugh so that no one else can tell how much you’re struggling. If you can make them laugh, you can at least control how they react to you, so that they don’t see the constant battle that’s going on inside your head, incesseant cacaphony that tells you you’re not worth it, unless maybe you can make this person laugh.

That’s just a hard fact of the mentally ill person’s daily life. It sounds very exotic and interesting in the abstract, but in practice I suspect most people regard such thought patterns with little more than a dismissive jerkoff motion. Not that I blame them. Depression, mental illness, anxiety-  they all create an existence that is somehow both alienating and incredibly boring to the non-sufferer. I know. I speak from experience.

I’ve never spoken publicly about my experiences with mental illness, mostly because I’ve never really had the platform, nor the reason. But in the week that’s followed the death of a beloved cultural icon whose struggles are still treated as some grand, tragic mystery, I felt the need to speak out a bit. For the entirety of my life, as far back as I can remember, I’ve struggled with mental illness. At some point a few years back, I was finally given the concrete diagnosis of bipolar disorder – type II, in case you were curious – and that was sort of a relief until it wasn’t anymore. A label was put on the problem, but the problem didn’t stop with the label. Since the diagnosis, I’ve had some ups, and I’ve had some major downs. I long ago made peace with the fact that, every so often if things get super bad (and sometimes even if they don’t!) I’m going to get into the pesky habit of genuinely wanting to off myself.

Obviously I haven’t done it yet, and if I have anything to say about it I never will. But the tricky thing about mental illness is that it’s an illness, and sometimes you don’t get a say. One major issue in the coverage of the death of Robin Williams is the way that the media and the world at large seems so incredibly baffled by the idea of suicide and the concept of mental illness that they fail to frame the issue in a way that might help those who are suffering. There’s been lots of talk about how senseless it is that such a funny man could be dealing with so much pain, which is ludicrous since it’s become widely acknowledged that comedians commonly struggle with such issues as depresssion,  mental health and addiction. Williams was very public in his battles of depression and his addiction to cocaine and alcohol. He had his relapses, but he always came back fighting.

Not one article regarding Williams’ suicide has framed his death as the result of his mental illness. Not one. This is rooted in the problematic, outdated idea surrounding suicide as a fundamentally “selfish” or “cowardly” thing. To frame his death as simply him taking his own life, rather than his life ending as a result of an instance of failure to treat his ongoing illness, only contributes to the victim-shaming attitudes that will ultimately create more suicides. In the days after Williams’ death, I commiserated with others that I knew on social media who struggled with such mental illnesses as bipolar, major depression, and anxiety. We all agreed that the worst part of the whole thing was that each and every one of us knew exactly how Robin Williams probably felt in his last days, and how we’ve felt that exact pain, and came out of it alive.

But we all acknowledged that there was one scary, unnerving, irrefutable fact: we have an illness that could kill us. Mental illness is a possibly terminal illness. It’s not entirely like cancer in that its terminality isn’t guaranteed, but it should be treated the same exact way that we treate physical illness. Because just like cancer, mental illness kills indiscriminantly. Though we like to treat mental illness and suicide as something that occurs mostly in the realm of artists and the cognescenti, that’s not true. Mental illness, like cancer or AIDS, knows no race, gender, sexuality, or creed. It does not discriminate.

The only way we can prevent more suicides is to reframe the sources of suicide in very fundamental ways. No longer can we shrug our shoulders at the end result, we must thoroughly and compassionately examine the source. Mental illness is not a great, unsolvable mystery. It is something that can be treated, the same as anything else. But we, as a culture, must resolve to remove the shame and stigma that’s associated with it, because shame and stigma only results in more death. I can’t possibly or responsibly speculate as to how Robin Williams might have  lived if the American public had a healthier understanding of how mental health worked. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt if we reframed the issue in a way that would genuinely help those who suffer.

Near the middle of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the clinically depressed character of Kate Gompert compares the suicidal ideation of the mentally ill to those who are trapped in the top floor of a burning building. In her words, “You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” The media needs to truly try to understand the feeling of being trapped by the flames before they try to rationalize the act of falling.

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  • Harold A. Maio

    —-remove the shame and stigma

    From your pages. A good place for you to start.

    See rape/stigma if you fail to see the impact of your words.

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor