My Brother’s Keeper: The Role of Society in Our Stigmatized Mental Health Field

 

 

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This is absolutely devastating. I’ve been a fan of Robin Williams since I was a small child, watching Popeye and Mork and Mindy on television. He starred in some of my favorite films: Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, and many more. His work was both dark and light, and could seemingly only come from the heart and mind of an artist suffering from Bipolar I Disorder. Williams was able to tap into the manic to conjure the funniest wisecracking characters you’ve ever seen. But from the depths of his depression, he brought us dark and complex psychoanalysts, serial killers, and motivational teachers of literature. His films were not always good, but Williams was almost always watchable.

I am saddened to see such a talent brought down in the prime of his career, by his own hand, and with so much to live for. But where he was–in that hole of despair–there’s little reasoning or hope to be had. And yet, what I do hope is that something good comes out of this–however small. Or will it teach us as little about mental illness as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s senseless death taught us about drug addiction? I hope not.
Recently, we’ve seen the psychosis of those suffering from mental illness take the lives of innocent adults and children–most often because they went untreated or undiagnosed. But even though they inflict the most traumatic carnage and leave the deepest scars, they are less than an infinitesimal fraction of the millions of Americans that are living and treating mental illness everyday. The stigma that persists around mental illness is that it is somehow an untreatable disease, rather than what it is–a persistent, but manageable illness, not unlike some cancers, diabetes, or any other similar ailment.
I passionately believe in education and prevention as a way to combat stigma, help our beleaguered veterans, and find better networks, medicine, and support to prevent any more desperate men and women at risk of taking their own lives, just as Robin Williams did. Because mental illness doesn’t know the difference between rich and poor, famous and unknown, mom or dad, soldier or civilian, or any other of the traits that divide us. It is an indiscriminating affliction, that can descend at any time, anywhere, to any one of us. And yet as a society, we are woefully uninformed, unprepared, fearful, scornful, unsympathetic, and intolerant of what we don’t know and don’t understand.
In reality, there is little to fear from those whose harm is almost always self-directed. In fact, suicide is the number one cause of premature death among people with bipolar disorder, with a staggeringly high 17% to 20% taking their own lives as a result of negative symptoms and as many as one in five patients with bipolar disorder completing suicide. Compare that to the suicide rate of 1% to 2% found in the general public. More than likely, Robin Williams suffered deeply, desperately, and quietly. Sadly, he joins a heartbreaking group of other Bipolar/ Manic Depressive artists that also took their own lives, including, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and many countless others.

It is very frightening. Resources or not, no manic depressive is immune from the visiting temptations of self-destruction…in whatever form. In the last few hours, I have seen a number of posts by very well-intentioned people suggesting that Williams might have saved himself, had he thought of all his adoring fans or confided in someone he loved, These are all very sweet sentiments, but miss the mark of a deep-rooted neurological disorder. It would have likely taken far more than those quick fixes to mend the sorrow of a dark and empty heart. For those who have been lucky enough to have never tempted the void and traveled to the very brink of life itself, or been eviscerated at the hands of debilitating depression, there is no easy way to describe a barren landscape of no hope and only despair. It has been stripped of all memory, and any other earthly thing that may delay next passage. It is not of the next plane, but it certainly is not of this world either. It is a place where either the bravest go, or those most weak and cowardly. It cannot be an easy choice, and it frightens me beyond compare to imagine a view of nothing left to lose except for pain and sadness. By that time, the choice might or might not have been reversible. We are all just speculating, and ultimately, none of us will ever know what was in his mind, and what it would have taken to talk him down and out of harm’s way.

 

There may not be a cure out there, but there is in each of us. We have the ability and resources to embrace our sick and wounded, and remove the barriers of intolerance, the crippling shame all those who suffer feel, and the mercy and compassion it takes to see ourselves in the afflicted, and fundamentally recognize that at any precious moment, it could very well be us.

 

RIP Robin Williams. Let us work to lift the load off those who continue to suffer as you did, but may still find hope and a helping hand.

 

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