Print Edition: September 3, 2014
When news of Robin Williams’ suicide broke out, a widespread outpouring of humanity ensued on social media websites. People everywhere expressed their deep shock, grief, and reverence for the deceased actor and comedian through online sentiments and touching video montages of poignant moments in Williams’ films and comic routines. The depth and intensity of these sentiments were astounding.
There was also a lot of talk about depression and mental illness: how we ought to be more open about it, how we should more actively help people with mental illness, and especially how we should dismantle the stigma of mental illness. It’s a step in the right direction; however, it takes more than just dialogue for change to happen.
The stigma typically dismisses the personal struggles of having mental illness as easy hurdles the afflicted is making a drama of: “Stop being depressed and move on with your life!” If only it were that simple. Such a position refuses to validate the real feelings of lost control that so many people deal with. There’d be a lot less suffering if depression were as one-dimensional as that.
There is no better example of stigmatization than Henry Rollins’ opinion piece in the L.A. Weekly called “Fuck Suicide,” where he laments and criticizes Robin Williams’ decision to end his life, and considers suicide a non-negotiable for the individual when he or she has a family: how dare someone with duty and worth in a society kill themselves? Such a position stigmatizes suicide and the factors which might lead someone to make such a decision. The step in the right direction — to understanding instead of ignorance — can come by changing the inflection of that question. How dare they?
As a comedian in the ’70s and ’80s, Williams talked about the tough stuff. His routine could be personal to the point of discomfort. He was open about substance abuse and depression. It must have been hard to express those sorts of things out in the open the first couple of times, but when he got used to talking about it, it probably became an easier thing to do — and subsequently, with his difficulties out in the air, he probably felt relieved. He didn’t need to hide so much of himself. Yet, even after breaking all that ground, he’s gone. He grew more reclusive over the years, and it is enticing to say that his distance might have been a big factor to his last decision.
Coming to terms with your personal demons is something you will do for a lifetime. Really, it isn’t a hurdle you can prop yourself over once and be done with. It is a matter of fact, the real non-negotiable. If we can destigmatize suicide and try to understand the factors and pressures of those who consider killing themselves as their only option, we will be able to help in a more personal and authentic way than uttering another benign “man up.” Maybe society as a whole needs to do the manning up, and face a legitimate issue for what it is, instead of placing the entire onus of mental illness on the afflicted. We owe it to them to understand.