Some of you know that one of my freelance jobs is as an entertainment news writer. By now you’ve probably heard that Robin Williams died yesterday. He took his own life following a serious and prolonged battle with depression.
When my professional and personal worlds collide like this, it’s hard for me not to stand up and speak out. It’s hard for me not to be personally affected. It would be hard for me not to be personally affected by news of Robin Williams’ suicide regardless of my job. I love Robin Williams movies. All of them.
But this is doubly difficult because of his battle with depression and the way people respond when someone–anyone–commits suicide as a result of mental illness.
I know how close many people living with depression get to feeling like taking their own lives is the answer. I know how close they get to feeling like they don’t matter. Like no one cares. That the world would be a better place without them in it.
I’ve been there.
Robin Williams’ death is an opportunity to open up the discourse about mental illness, suicide, and the stigma of both, but–and I hope I’m wrong–the opportunity will be missed because of people who don’t understand and don’t try to understand. Many of them are well-meaning, but they’re also very wrong.
Suicide isn’t “the easy way out.”
Suicide isn’t “a permanent answer to a temporary problem.”
Suicide isn’t “selfish.”
Suicide is death. Period. Full stop. End of discussion. RestmycaseAmen.
Mental illness is a disease of the mind. And one that is far too often handwaved as a moral failing or shortcoming on the part of the person living with the disease.
“Just go out and take a walk! Get some fresh air! You’ll feel better!”
“Pray more! God will hear you! You’re only going through this because God is teaching you something!”
“Why can’t you just snap out of it?”
“Wow! You always seem so happy! What do you mean you’re depressed? You have nothing to be depressed about!”
“You have so many awesome things in your life. Why aren’t you happy?”
“You should just be thankful you’re alive.”
If any of those things were truly helpful in any way we wouldn’t have a legion of depressed people walking around, many of whom can’t get treatment because of lack of access and resources to do so, or who won’t seek treatment because they’re afraid of what people might say, or how it will affect their personal and professional lives should anyone find out.
We wouldn’t have people like Robin Williams committing suicide.
Depression lies, and when you hear those bootstrapping phrases enough and can’t seem to dig yourself out, the depression just gets worse.
“What’s wrong with me that I can’t just be better?” If we could will it to be so, we would.
If any of the bullshit statements being bandied about regarding mental illness were truly helpful, I wouldn’t be a woman living with depression and anxiety. Robin Williams (probably) wouldn’t be dead. My student wouldn’t have taken his own life at 17.
We wouldn’t need activists shouting that there is hope for you if you’re suffering.
Frankly, I dream of that world, but that’s not the world in which we live. And my heart is a little more broken open today because of it. Because another life has been lost to mental illness. Countless lives, since suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, and the 3rd among those ages 15-24.
We live in a place where you never quite know what’s happening in the lives of those right next to you. In traffic, on the train, at the grocery store, in the carpool lane, at school or work, or maybe even at home. You don’t know what lies depression might be telling the person you think you know so well, especially if you’re the kind of person who spouts off the nonsense written above.
Because we can’t know that, not unless the person suffering shares the information, the only appropriate response when we find out is “How can I help you get better?”
And the answer, if you really want to hear it, is to listen. Listen and don’t judge. Don’t try to solve the problem with quippy and faux-supportive phrases you heard on an After School Special or read on Facebook. Don’t tell people what YOU would do if you’ve never been there. You can’t know what you would do if you’ve never been there.
Be a friend. Check in. All the time. Make phone calls and find the person help. Do not give up. Tell someone. And on a global scale, stop doing things that prevent others from gaining access to treatment (like voting for politicians who don’t give a shit about healthcare). Shout loudly against the stigma of mental illness and not in ways that only further it.
Don’t just “rage against the dying of the light.” BE THE LIGHT.
Fight alongside those who are suffering, even though you yourself do not, because there might come a time when they can’t fight for themselves and they’ll need an army to do it for them. Be their army.
Do it for Robin Williams.