The last couple of weeks have felt like the apocalpyse. What started off as the end of the world in Ukraine slowly inched into the conflict in Gaza, found its way to Iraq and culminated in Ferguson, Missouri. While these so called apocalyptic events in each instance claimed several lives, the event that hit home the most for me came via a text on Monday night that Robin Williams had taken his life. I read the text in disbelief and let out a low scream. It was not blood curdling by any means but filled with so much anguish. I never met Robin Williams but I grew up with him. He was the gentle voice of the genie, but more importantly, he was Mrs. Doubtfire. Celebrity deaths often invoke some deep sense of loss, often the loss is borne out of the sense that an irreplaceable dearth has been created, but importantly, these deaths are a reminder that these individuals had reached what we see as the pinnacle while still succumbing to the demon of dissatisfaction.
I am particularly sensitive about the passing of Williams because it brings to the forefront an oft overlooked subject, that of mental illness. There are pink ribbons for breast cancer and Livestrong bracelets for all other cancers. There are walks each year for the March of Dimes and now ice buckets for ALS but rarely is the subject of mental health given the spotlight it deserves. Yet, every forty seconds, someone in the United States commits suicide and nearly half a million Americans are hospitalized annually for attempting suicide. Suicide is such an attractive option when life seems bleak because in the moment it purpots to offer a permanent solution to what the victim fails to realize might indeed be a truly temporary problem.
Unfortunately, mental illness is largely stigmatized and while some sufferers are comfortable enough to rattle off a list of their symptoms and corresponding prescriptions, others suffer in silence. Few people want to be seen as unstable, however, at some point in life most of us will be victims of a form of mental illness, most commonly depression. Mental health issues are viewed narrowly as signs of weakness and an inabilty to ride out the storms of life. For people in the spotlight like Williams, depression can be even harder to deal with, as their lives are lived in the public often without channels to retreat into for brief brushes with normalcy. Not only does celebrity strip some people of a sense of normalcy, but social media avenues empower trolls, who are nothing but bullies behind screens with the power to tear down and cast aspersions. Those close to Williams note that on screen he was hilarious and bore a certain largess of personality, a buoyancy that sadly devolved once the stagelights were dimmed. He craved adulation and lived for the affirmation of the audience, going from a booming voice onstage to a shamefaced Wizard of Oz persona just newly discovered to be a mere apparition.
The largess of personality and excessive exuberance that turn into extreme loneliness and despair in private characterize some sufferers of depression who are prone to suicide. Backed into a corner by life's challenges, most sufferers of depression are unable to imagine pulling out of their deep gloom or envisioning a light at the end of the tunnel of despair. Writing for the New Yorker, Andrew Solomon notes that "at one level, the suicide of young people is obviously more tragic than the suicide of older people; youths have more life ahead of them, more of a chance to work things out. At another level, middle-aged suicide, the vanquishing of someone who has fought off the urge for decades is especially catastrophic." Solomon notes that for most older people who end up so tragically, there is an acknowledgement that things might never turn around, never get better and the light in the candle is easier to blow out because hope seems so elusive.
Hope does sometime seem elusive and in some instances the choice to end one's life might seem an attractive option. I am not a mental health professional by any stretch, but suicide in my opinion is not a sign of selfishness or cowardice. For those who take that route, it might have seemed the only escape. I remember a friend describing suicide as a final decision made in a moment of despair that ultimately becomes the last decision ever made. His remarks were prefaced by an admonition to seek help but how can that be heeded when those who are mentally ill are mocked and derided and viewed as weak? I often remind people that mental illness can happen to anyone and that the mind can get sick just like the body can. Why is it acceptable to entertain open conversations about a knee surgery but not one on schizophrenia? Why do we talk about manic depression in hushed tones but speak of kidney failure in higher decibels. Why is society unwilling to address mental health issues with the audacity that is indeed necessary?
Interestingly, suicide is so contagious and if anything, as the protests in Ferguson and the gun fire in Iraq occupy our attention, the news of the passing of Williams will provide more than a few someones who have been contemplating suicide with the impetus to do so. The rationale often is if someone as celebrated as Williams could end his life in spite of his wealth and gravitas, they can too. So while we are glued to world events many families will be making funeral arrangements spurred by the news of Williams' own tragic death. Suicide is preventable, but we need to address the problem at the root. A light needs to be shone on mental illness and the stigma needs to be erased because suicide does not have to happen, it can be prevented.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255