In the wake of the death of Robin Williams, we at Shadowboxing would like to take a moment to give some pause for a topic that has struck an incredible chord here at home.
The vast tragedy in losing someone to suicide is the momentary, technicolor glimpse that for as far advanced a society we are, we still live in the dark ages of mental illness treatment.
You’d never hear anyone say “If he really loved his kids, he would have put that cancer behind him.” Yet if we substitute something like alcoholism or depression for cancer, you’d have statements that are way more commonplace. Even the most caring, well-meaning people hold beliefs about mental health that are wrought with ignorance and misunderstanding.
Suffering from mental illness is not an issue of willpower. It does not respond to a desire to be different or be rid of it. It has nothing to do with how much someone does or doesn’t want to be a normal, productive member of society. Depression doesn’t go away through “finding laughter” or even meaning in life. Alcoholism doesn’t go away from seeing the look in your child’s eyes and waking up to the problem.
Like cancer, mental illness is called an illness because there is a clinical problem and a need for a course of treatment. Unlike cancer, there is sadly very little agreement on which course of treatment is the most effective. Social stigma is still so powerful, most continue to suffer in silence. Explaining away the symptomatic behavior becomes even less helpful, as people dismiss issues such as alcoholism as being rooted in selfishness or apathy.
Like cancer, there is the possibility of the individual getting well and the illness going into remission pending continued treatment. Unlike cancer, when treatment isn’t sought or isn’t effective and someone dies as a result of mental illness, we’re “blindsided” and “shocked”.
The sad truth is that if your eyes are open at all, it’s not shocking that someone would die from mental illness. It’s tragic, unspeakably painful, littered with confusion and devastation. Suicide particularly leaves behind an unfathomable mess for anyone remotely affected. But when a person dies of mental illness, don’t call it shocking. What’s shocking is that we as a society are generally so blind to the writing on the wall and so uneducated about mental illness that it’s a giant surprise when the inevitable occurs.
Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. I hope you’ve found some shred of respite in the end of this life. Hopefully someday we will find a solution specific enough that we can open up as a society and begin truly providing the help that’s needed without the shroud of shame. Your life was cherished, but your death was surely preventable.