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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The tragic loss of Robin Williams: depression, suicide and why we need to revise our judgments on and understanding of this issue

So, I've got to weigh in on the loss of Robin Williams a bit further here, and I'm going to do so because it's important to speak out about the issue of mental illness. Here goes...

  I'm a bit stunned at the number of people out there who are belittling the great Robin Williams' life, his genius, the laughter, joy and better understanding of life and humanity that he has brought to us all. These people are making these judgments simply because he was struggling with mental illness. I would like to remind such people to reign in that judgment a tad.
 After all, mental illness isn't a choice. It's not a test to be passed or failed. It's not a weakness or a personal shortcoming. It is a chemical imbalance within one's brain. It doesn't matter how "strong" or "weak" someone is or how much "faith" or "conviction" they have. It doesn't matter what a person "has to live for." Mental illness, like many physical illnesses and ailments, claims lives. 
 When mental illness hits, it's like a freight train mowing you down in it's path. Sometimes you see it coming, other times you don't, but oftentimes even if you do, you are still powerless to move out of it's way. I work with clients who struggle with mental illness every day of their lives. It is a very serious and unfortunately stigmatized and little understood state of being (and yes, it consumes your whole being) which has to be fought on a daily basis. 
 So, let's try to move away from treating Mr. Williams' life and death like a failed experiment simply because his life was claimed an illness, and a very serious and pervasive one at that, and try to move toward showing him some compassion and understanding. Suicide is never the answer, but sometimes it isn't a choice. A mentally ill person isn't always capable of making correct decisions because their brain isn't functioning properly. Think of a healthy brain as an excel spreadsheet with the correct values set into it-basically, the factory settings have been programmed into it. If you input 1+1, the properly set spreadsheet will give you a 2 in the next column. 
 Now think of a mentally ill person's brain as an excel spreadsheet which has been messed with-the values have been improperly entered. Entering 1+1 into their mental "spreadsheet" might garner a totally different answer. A person with a "normally" functioning brain might scoff at the idea of someone else not being able to decipher a mathematical problem as seemingly simple as 1+1 equaling 2, but the only reason they can solve such a problem correctly in the first place is because their brain is set to it's proper "factory settings." What I'm trying to say is that this is a matter biological imperative and not personal failing, so let's try to come to some sort of understanding of that before we throw value judgments at Robin Williams. Yes, we all feel badly for his family. Yes, we all agree that this was a tragic end to a great life. No, no one here thinks that suicide is ever the answer. But perhaps Robin Williams' brain was telling him that the answer to his equation was to end his life, and if it was, we should be compassionate about that, not make uninformed comments about how he "failed the test" of life, how "karma is coming his way" or how he was "selfish" for leaving his family/leaving the world this way/etc. I hope this blog post helps those who've taken the time to read it to better understand why judgment-namely judgment that holds a mentally ill person to the same standards that we hold mentally healthy people to-is not the way to go here. 

For more information on depression, and what it is and isn't, what it's symptoms consist of and what you can do about it if you feel you may be struggling with it, please visit the website below:
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/index.shtml

If you feel that you or someone close to you may be struggling with suicidal thoughts or tendencies, please visit the websites below AFTER you call the crisis intervention line listed there: 

https://m.facebook.com/hopefortheday?v=timeline&filter=1&refid=17

As always, thanks for reading!

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