The death of Robin Williams has led me to this plea -- let’s loudly and seriously address something that’s still hidden, stigmatized and even ignored in this country: Mental illness.
According to the National Institutes of Health, at least 9.6 million Americans over the age of 18 are believed to have a serious mental illness. Many more are afflicted with varying manifestations of depression that can cripple them for a day or a lifetime. These medical problems include common conditions such as bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive tendencies, schizophrenia, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
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Williams had a brain disease. It wasn’t a demon or a devil. In fact, I strongly object to people referring to those with psychiatric illnesses as "struggling with inner demons." That only promotes a primitive and stigmatizing sense of these conditions. We don’t say someone is struggling with an inner demon when they have a tumor somewhere -- although there was a time when we did! And we have not relinquished these backwards notions when we refer to disorders of the brain.
Williams had an illness. His representative says he was “battling severe depression." Williams didn’t ask for it. He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t bring it on. Yet, he was forced to struggle with it for many years until the pain became too great.
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Having a family, fame, wealth or other markers of what society considers “success” are irrelevant. And in some cases, they are stressors that can add to the burden of being mentally ill. Fame can also make it difficult to openly participate in the rooms across the land where individuals with addiction find sobriety. It’s almost unimaginable how someone who seems to have so much joy in his life -- how he brings so much joy to others -- could be in a state of misery. This is the problem with depression and brain disorders generally: They do not discriminate.
And it’s why so many who don’t understand this illness are not sympathetic. You can’t see a brain injury. The words “mental illness” or even the medical profession of psychiatry or psychology frighten some people. This ignorance causes a lack of compassion. Some even blame the sufferer. Another issue? Some with mental illness work hard to hide it. We all present to the world what we want it to see. Being funny may have been a mask for Williams. While he spoke publicly, on occasion, about depression and substance abuse, the specifics of his condition remain private and so they should.
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There were likely a number of factors that contributed to Williams’ condition. Alcoholism is certainly one. He may have had genetic potential for depression. Addiction and depression can be an easily fatal combination. Williams also had cardiac surgery. Just having cardiac disease and cardiac surgery can put people at risk for depression. He spoke of his emotions after cardiac surgery and said they were raw and intense. His depression may well have worsened following his cardiac surgery. He has left us with a reminder of the complex relationship between medical conditions and mood disorders. Depression can be precipitated by or worsened by medical disorders and the medication used to treat them.
Psychiatric conditions do not discriminate. They affect old and young. Rich and poor. The well-educated and high school dropouts. People of all colors and socio-economic groups. If there’s a message in Williams’ death, it’s this: It is really important to remind ourselves that these medical conditions are serious. If you or a loved one are struggling with this sort of thing, please take advantage of treatment and stay with it. You are not at fault. You are not to blame. Reach out. Often the solution can be in your connection to others.
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Find a licensed professional and follow treatment recommendations. Treatment is usually successful. There is hope.