It’s often said that laughter is the best medicine. And there is plenty of research that backs up this claim – indicating that both laughing and smiling on a regular basis can be wildly beneficial to our mood, positivity and an overall optimistic outlook. For those experiencing a transient period of sadness or malaise, this holds much more than a grain of truth. But the unfortunate reality, and something we have learned in a very difficult way over the past 24 hours, is that even the funniest joke nor the toothiest of grins are always enough to pull us away from the clutching grasp of mental illness, and more specifically – that of severe clinical depression.
Robin Williams was beloved by millions of people around the world for his deep and heartfelt movie roles, for his wildly funny comedy, for his generosity and for what seemed like a unique and admirable capacity to scoff at convention and blaze his own shining trail. But in learning of his passing yesterday from an apparent suicide at the age of 63, many people were given only the slightest glimpse of the torment he felt at the hands of a demon he could not slay.
While we all hold our loved ones a little bit closer today – with a heaviness in our collective hearts – we are beginning to breach what just might be the most important discussion of this generation. If someone so endeared by everyone could feel such a profound hopelessness and despair, what hope might there be for us common folk to face such an affliction head on, and find the light at the other side of a dark and seemingly endless tunnel?
Mental illness is often painted with the widest brush, full of terrible stigmas, inaccurate myths and sweeping generalizations. Sufferers are often depicted as being weak in character, as cry babies who can’t seem to pull themselves together, or as being overly dramatic and blowing every little thing out of proportion. Those who do ultimately take their own lives are left with a tinged legacy of selfishness – that they’re cold and uncaring of those they left behind.
But the facts are thus – mental illness will affect one out of every four people you know; it does not discriminate based on wealth, personality or popularity; it is not merely an issue of pulling oneself together, nor is it a matter of having a strong or weak disposition; it is not logical – trying to convince someone why they just need to “pull themselves together” will not make the problem go away; and most importantly – it can be overcome – with the right help and resources available, many if not most sufferers from mental health conditions can go on to lead happy and rewarding lives.
We have come to a crossroads however. We are at a point now where we need to start laying it all out on the line, we need to open up and have this difficult conversation now so that no more of our loved ones need feel like Robin Williams did yesterday and for the months and years leading up to that fateful moment – with the feeling that there is no other way to go but out. Over the past three months, DI staff have had to conduct a handful of river rescues to save clients in the midst of suicide attempts. Of the 23 clients that have passed away in the past year, a number of those (though not confirmable) could easily be attributed to self-harm as well. The striking reality is that the more socially isolated people become, the less avenues they ultimately see available, until they are sadly only left with one that makes any sense.
We need to start breaking down the walls of mental illness, we need to stop making sufferers feel like they must go it alone. We need to stop the stigma, we need to debunk the myths and we need to open ourselves up to the facts. We need to push for better research, a wider availability of treatment and resources, and we need to stop acting as if it’s not going to happen to us or someone else we care about – because the sobering reality is that it can and it probably will.
There is plenty of research to support the fact that whether the pain is emotional or physical, it is registered no differently by the brain. Just because one person’s wounds are cannot be seen does not diminish their reality nor the impact. Whether it is cancer or depression, asthma or anxiety – it’s time we treat all illness the same. Each can ultimately lead to death, but each can also be controlled and overcome. Robin Williams was an amazing spirit and we all feel blessed for having gotten to share in his incredible legacy – and today we’re all overcome with his loss. Let us hope that from this profound sadness might arise a new conversation, a lasting and meaningful one that changes our collective vision about what it means to suffer from depression and from the broader scope of mental illness.
Rest in peace Mr. Williams, you are and will forever be missed.