Robin Williams, a highly acclaimed, popular, wealthy comedian and actor lost his life today causing widespread sorrow around the world.
Notice, I said ‘lost’ his life, not ‘took’ his life.
Mixed in among the various reports into his death, people giving their respects and celebrations of Williams’ life, were several rather less complimentary reports.
Shep Smith on Fox news called Williams a ‘coward’ about the sadly now confirmed reports that Williams committed suicide. Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show said that Williams killed himself due to a ‘political leftist attitude’. Todd Bridges said today that Williams should simply have ‘buckled down and asked God to help’.
The huge misunderstanding of the extent of mental illness, as shown by some of the comments today, leads many to bottle up their issues rather than seeking professional help.
People feel as if they cannot express their genuine problems without being judged, without being a ‘coward’. They feel that if they open up to people, they will lose their normal identity. They will go from John next door with the three kids, to John next door who has depression – those poor kids.
The statistics, however, suggest otherwise. 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health issue in the course of a year. That is a very significant percentage of the population. That is in fact very normal. Yet it is still undoubtedly stigmatised. Why?
Well the easy answer to this is the general lack of knowledge and understanding of mental health. People reason that, this is not a problem with your body, this is not a bit of bad luck, a broken toe, a fever. This is a problem with your mind. This is insanity.
That we have reached a point where a person with mental illness can confide in another person who also has mental illness (but is perhaps ‘closeted’) and still be judged poorly, suggests at the extent of this issue in modern society. You may have problems, but you can handle them, you’re strong. That person is weak.
The reality of the situation is that the person who confided will more likely seek help and will more likely recover. The ‘strong’ person will suffer. Such is the strength of the stigma.
I ask you to imagine yourself at that moment. Perhaps as Robin Williams did. You have money, fame, a wonderful legacy and a family. You stand in a room full of expensive objects. You have it all. You love and care deeply for your family. You stand on a chair and hang yourself.
Can you imagine that? No. Of course not. Nothing about that process is rational. Nothing about it makes sense. These are not the actions of a well man. These are also not the actions of a selfish man, of a cowardly man. These are the actions of a very ill man.
Suicide, I believe can be best explained like this: You are a young man, your country involved in a war where every single person serving dies. You know you are soon going to get drafted. It is inevitable, the government of your country is far more powerful that you. You try to live your life and you push the upcoming event to the back of your mind. Along the way, you have numerous chances to avoid the draft: you could be an administrator, or a medic, or an engineer and you wouldn’t have to go – you could stay at home.
You know the implications of ‘chickening out’ and saving yourself. Everybody around you will know what you did, they will know who you are – that you are weak and fragile. So you keep going, you keep blocking the thought from your head. Occasionally it gets the better of you and you get upset, but you are going to live your life normally and that’s that. You can feel it as it looms closer and closer. Then suddenly, it’s draft day. There is nothing you can do to stop it, it is entirely out of your hands. You’re gone.
Suicide isn’t a rational choice between living and dying. You may say, ‘well, I have had those thoughts, but when push came to shove, I chose not to. What you experienced wasn’t suicide – it wasn’t even close. Rationalise with yourself and ask, honestly – were you ever going to do it? No. Of course not.
Suicide is the putting off of a decision. Initially there may be choice in that decision, but by the time you get there, there is only going to be one outcome.
So what has all this rather depressing discussion really been about?
Well it is to say this: mental illness is two distinct, and unappreciated things.
1) It is normal! It doesn’t lessen your standing as human beings. It should be treated the same as any other disease.
2) Suicide is not a choice, it is not a selfish action, it is not a cowardly action. We should feel sorrow for the victim, and make an effort to inform others. Not bastardise it and criticise those inflicted.
If you feel may be suffering – go and see a doctor. Then tell your friends that you have! Explain to them why mental illness should be treated like any other disease! Educate people about the realities of the suffering, of the disease. Squash the stigma – save lives!
Thank you very much for reading – please do share this if you think it may be at all relevant to somebody!
All international suicide hotlines are on this page.