The Way I See It: Making Sense of the Death of Robin Williams
Part due to stigma, part due to being uninformed, often as a society, we can't seem to be able to fully grasp the whats or the whys when an individual takes his or her own life. It's time to talk about the stigma of suicide.
American comedian and actor Robin Williams died just weeks ago on August 11, 2014.
Revered by many in Hollywood and beyond, Williams received his big break when he showed his eccentric portraying of an extraterrestrial on the television show Mork and Mindy. Throughout his career, he not only provided many laughs during his stand-up routines, but also offered several Oscar-worthy performances in many leading roles. He was not just remembered for making people laugh – but also for inspiring them.
While news of death always deals a heavy blow to those closest to it, in this particular instance, it seemed the entire world stopped to mourn. Not only was he loved by friends, family, and fans globally – he even had other primates, like Koko the gorilla, mourning his unexpected and unanticipated death.
After the news broke, fans far and wide began sharing their grief across various social media outlets. Some offered tribute, posting video clips featuring lines from films like Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting, or Dead Poets Society.
Others took to the streets, toasting amongst friends and chanting "Oh captain, my captain," Whitman's famous lines that Williams inspired a generations with, in local bars. And even others took to openly discussing his actual cause of death – suicide.
Because of this, his death affected many of us far deeper than we expected it to.
Part due to stigma, part due to being uninformed, often as a society, we can't seem to be able to fully grasp the whats or the whys when an individual takes his or her own life. And it seems especially difficult to comprehend when it's someone who brings so much joy and happiness into others lives – who, in the end, couldn't find it personally.
We all knew Williams had suffered from drug addiction and depression. We learned as of late that he had also been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. But what we don't really know is ultimately why he felt he could no longer stay in this world – that he was so overwhelmed by depression, that he couldn't fathom taking another breath. And the truth is, he most likely didn't know why he felt that way either.
Depression is a very real disease. It has very real physical ailments – and very real pain. Sometimes the disease doesn't manifest in visible signs and symptoms to others – but to the sufferer, the pain is just as real.
When it comes to death, we find solace – or at least better understanding – when we can blame something tangible. Deaths that result from heart disease and cancer are easier to grasp because we see them coming and we know the reason, the enemy, the object to which we can affix our blame, hate, and frustration. When someone suffers from depression, visible signs aren't always as apparent – and unfortunately many still believe those suffering from it should just be able to "snap out of it."
But unlike sadness, depression is a serious mental illness characterized by intense hopelessness and worthlessness. Still, we neglect to realize that depression is just as real and physical a disease as the others – because we don't know or understand the it.
According to the World Health Organization, 350 million individuals from around the world suffer from depression – these are just the reported diagnoses. What's more, over 80 percent of individuals showing signs of clinical depression are not receiving treatment.
Suicide takes the lives of nearly one-million individuals worldwide every year and research has consistently shown a strong link between suicide and depression, with 90 percent of the people who die by suicide having an existing mental illness or substance abuse problem at the time of their death. And yet, for whatever reason, there is still great stigma surrounding this disease.
We talk about suicide being the ultimate act of selfishness or the coward's way out. We talk about suicide being a choice. But I don't believe this to be wholly true. Personal demons, whatever they may be and whenever they may be faced, are just that – personal. As such, they can be hard to communicate and even harder to understand.
And the truth is, not one of us can fully experience the way another feels. Try as we may, we truthfully can never "walk in another's shoes." Life is what makes us who we are – from our unique physical makeup, to the circumstances within and out of our control – all of which help to create the mind of the person we are today. It's what makes life beautiful and tragic all at the same time.
Depression isn't defined by the life you lead. It doesn't matter how much money you make, how many people love you, and the happiness that may surround you. Many people forget that the brain, like all organs in our body, is just as vulnerable to illness and disease. Depression is a clinical disease – one for which we have treatment but no cure.
Those that suffer are not weak. In fact, they are stronger than most. But they are affected by something that nobody fully understands, and tragically, in the end, they see no other way out. Perhaps if we all took time to judge less and care more, then our world might start to shift. We must educate others so that they understand that this illness can affect anyone – and that treatment can manage the symptoms so that those of us who suffer mental illness do not hesitate to seek treatment and help.
Because many will not ask.
I can only hope that when Williams arrived in heaven (which I believe he did) that God looked at him and said…"You got the lucky ticket home, baby."
And with that, I bring you the final Adrian Cronauer broadcast… Goodbye, Vietnam.
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