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In the last day or so I've been seeing posts on both Facebook and Twitter about the tragic loss of actor and comedian Robin Williams. Most have had nothing but good things to say and were genuinely saddened by the news. I was surprised, however, by some tweets that seemed a bit anger driven. Statements about loving yourself and understanding that YOU are important. One even mentioned something along the lines of getting a grip. While many of these fans mean well they are laboring under the same notion that many use to cope with a loss that stems in part from a mental illness like severe depression. I blame that on a lack of education on mental illness itself.
Many were aware of Robin Williams's struggles with substance abuse. Few of us knew of his battle against depression. It was something he did not discuss openly or even truly acknowledge.
As someone who has seen first hand the ravages that a mental health issue can have on a loved one I can understand why he may not have wanted to talk about it publicly. Some don't want to discuss these types of issues because of the stigmas that are attached to them. There are still people out there who do not acknowledge that mental disorders like depression are very real health problems. It is hard for us as human beings I guess to call a health issue that affects the mind a disease. Disorder seems a kinder and gentler word. Unfortunately, being politically correct or gentler in the terminology does not help those who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorders. These illnesses are not kind or gentle things. They isolate the people who suffer from them and carry with them a high risk of substance abuse and suicide. The people who love an individual with a mental illness often feel helpless and are many times caught off guard when someone they love is diagnosed with one of these diseases. While there is research out to support that some if not all of these disorders could be genetic in nature, it is hard to know for sure because of the shame attached to mental illnesses that have dogged society and continue to do so. How can a person know that something like this is in their family tree if past relatives who have suffered similar problems were hidden away or became substance abusers to deal with their personal demons.
Mental illnesses are insidious in part because the scars they leave are internal and can be masked or overshadowed by other problems. Loved ones anguished to see their friend or family member so vulnerable don't often talk about what is going on in an effort to protect them. Many can't afford proper treatment and many are diagnosed too late for family or friends to get them into treatment decreasing the odds that they will ever stay in or seek out therapy. Even worse many of the more severe types of mental illness are treated with drugs that carry side effects that can adversely affect a person's physical health and require steroid treatment and other medications to help control blood pressure. Individuals on these medications can complain about feeling zoned out or mentally foggy all the time.
It hasn't been completely confirmed whether severe depression was in part the cause of Robin Williams's death. And I like so many others wish to celebrate his life. He was by all accounts a very kind and generous person. Few would argue that he was a unique and talented comedian who used his gift to spread joy and hope to many. If it does prove to be true that severe depression helped contribute to his death then perhaps we can learn something from this loss. Maybe this will motivate us to break down the barriers to illnesses like depression before they rob us of others before their time. Instead of drawing away in fear or awkward discomfort from those out there who suffer from a mental illness perhaps this will make us want to educate ourselves and society about these types of health problems to help those who suffer cope and maybe even seek out treatment. If we can acknowledge that mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, among others, are diseases we stand a better chance of improving research efforts into finding better treatments and maybe even cures for these health problems. No one should have to suffer in the shadows or be lost too soon because of them.