It’s taken me a few weeks to update our website in light of the passing of Robin Williams. There have been many reasons for this. Talking about a suicide, especially the suicide of someone who touched everyone’s hearts in one way or another, is very sensitive. I’ve read many different articles since his passing, many written with compassion and empathy, many others with scarring words and stigma.
As a 90’s baby, I grew up with Robin Williams in many ways. He was my genie, my Mrs. Doubtfire, my Alan Parish. He captivated my imagination and made me laugh like few other comedians could do. I’ve had Dead Poets Society on my to-watch list for a few years now, but I feel I can already resonate with O Captain, My Captain.
There is a fine line here, though, and finding that balance is proving itself to be a daunting task, even for those of us in the mental health field. On one hand, it’s been years since mental health and suicide were this widely covered in the news. With this much coverage, people who are hurting without a doubt found access to phone numbers or local resources where they could get help. The reality that mental illness does not discriminate was highlighted over and over again. We can say with 100% confidence that Robin Williams was NOT lazy, selfish, weak, or crazy. So that MUST mean that other people who live with mental illness are also not lazy, selfish, weak, or crazy. This is stigma-busting stuff; information that professionals have been trying to get out there for years. With improved education comes improved services and access to those services.
On the other hand, I fear that we are glamorizing and immortalizing Robin Williams. He was a fantastic man, and there are no objections to that fact. In his life, he did amazing things. He cared about people. That is the best legacy to leave behind; to have people say without a shred of doubt that he cared about people. But I fear that Robin is going to be the new face of suicide. I fear we’re going to start remembering him for how he died instead of how he lived. This would be dishonorable to his memory and ignorant of the true issue that needs to be highlighted.
Two articles really captivated me since Robin’s passing. They are contradictory, and yet there is a middle ground between the two that I think is worth noting. The first stated that Robin Williams did not die of a disease, but of a choice. The main point in this article states that suicide is a choice. Suicide did not come upon him like a heart attack. Suicide did not happen to him. He made the choice to take his life. As frank and cold as that is, it is true. No one forced him to make a suicide attempt. Similarly, no one can take blame for his attempt. It was his choice alone.
However, that frank article fails to understand the depths of depression. Can we really expect someone to be able to face a choice like whether or not to make a suicide attempt and make the correct decision when their ability to think and reason has been compromised by mental illness? Suicide is not a black and white choice when someone is in that deep, dark pit of despair. To a healthy person like you or me, the choice to live or die seems like an easy one. But from someone who has felt the hopelessness, worthlessness, the burden of existence that comes with the diagnosis of depression, let me tell you: the choice is not so easy.
The second article is the exact opposite. It states that Robin Williams did not die of suicide, but rather he died from depression. The way this author explains why Robin died of depression and not suicide is so well worded that I’ve decided to just copy and paste it here:
“When people die from cancer, their cause of death can be various horrible things – seizure, stroke, pneumonia – and when someone dies after battling cancer, and people ask “How did they die?”, you never hear anyone say “pulmonary embolism”, the answer is always “cancer”. A Pulmonary Embolism can be the final cause of death with some cancers, but when a friend of mine died from cancer, he died from cancer. That was it. And when I asked my wife what Robin Williams died from, she, very wisely, replied “Depression””
So what am I getting at here? I mentioned that there is a middle ground between these two contradictory articles. There are some truths here that are worth noting. Namely:
- Suicide is a choice. Thus, if you are thinking about suicide, take comfort in the fact that you can choose to get help, and you can choose to live.
- It is not a black and white choice. For someone so close to that edge, there is a storm of emotions and thoughts trying to push that person over. In many ways, the choice to live can be the harder choice to make.
- We need to continue talking about mental health so that we can reach the millions of people who struggle every day. Robin Williams was one of many individuals who die by suicide every year. We need to fight for the “common man” just as fervently as we fight for our celebrities.
- There is help. 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable mental illness at the time of death. Treatment is available, and treatment works.
- Let’s continue to remember Robin Williams for what he did in life, not how he died. But let’s also continue the discussion surrounding mental health and suicide.
As always, if you’re hurting, please reach out:
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 1-800-SUICIDE
Text “LISTEN” to 741-741