I’m taking a break from my typical format to talk about the passing of a phenomenal actor and a huge part of my childhood. Normally I am relatively unaffected by celebrities’ deaths, but this one hit me in a way I was not expecting. Robin Williams’s history of mental illness is not news to the public, something he had been struggling with for a long time. No one knows for certain what was going through his mind during his last hours.
The reports we the public are being given are suggesting that Mr. Williams took his own life. This makes his death even more upsetting, knowing that he found himself in such a hopeless place that he felt he had no other options. This brings up a much larger issue surrounding how mental illness is addressed in this country. There exists a culture in the United States where it is difficult to seek help for depression. We tend to promote the mentality that depression is an emotion rather than the illness that it is, that a “strong person” can “snap out of it” if they really want to. This is not the case. A comparison that I like to give my clients is to replace mental illness with cancer. No one would ask a cancer patient, “Have you ever tried not having cancer?”
Luckily, unlike cancer, most mental illness is responsive to appropriate treatment. However, even those who are fortunate enough to have the resources available to them for treatment are faced with a huge stigma. Inaccurate media portrayals of mental illness and an overall dismissive social attitude has potential clients asking themselves, “What kind of person goes to therapy? Am I that kind of person?” Or more specifically, “Am I crazy?” (There is a massive controversy within the field of psychology surrounding the term crazy. I am trying to stay focused and will not address this in depth right now.)
Fear of judgement and stigma can prevent people from reaching out. If you have any suspicion that someone close to you might be suffering, do not wait for them to ask for help. In several of my graduate classes we discussed a fear of “planting the seed” by asking clients if they are having thoughts of suicide. Research has shown that, if someone has not considered suicide, they will not suddenly have ideations if someone asks. The power of suggestion is just not that strong. But if they are having these thoughts, there is a good chance that they will open up about it if asked. The APA provides this great article for talking to someone about an emotional crisis.
However, you do not have to wait until a crisis emerges to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. Make it clear that you are willing to listen if something comes up. Correct people when they make false and stigmatizing statements about mental illness. This comic perfectly illustrates the ridiculous nature of those kinds of claims. Recovery is possible, but not if we beat down everyone who seeks help. Be the change, and maybe others will not have to die.
Finally, if you are having thoughts of suicide, please seek help. The number for the National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and they are available 24/7 and can provide you with support and resources in your area. Program it into your speed dial so that you don’t even have to think about it before making the call. You might not see it right now, but it will get better.
My condolences to Mr. Williams’s family and loved ones during this tragic time.
“Our job is improving the quality of life, not just delaying death.” ~ Robin Williams in Patch Adams