To live with a mental illness is to experience something so personal and intricate, something so deeply connected to your basic foundation of what it is to be a human being, that it is almost impossible to untangle your own feelings and experiences when discussing or writing about someone else’s. Perhaps that is extremely flawed – after all, it means that whatever I am about to write definitely won’t be neutral or balanced or even necessarily factual. But it will be honest, which I think is the closest to factual that any of us can ever hope to be, sometimes.
Just recently, actor, comedian, and expert hot dog impersonator Robin Williams committed suicide. Unsurprisingly, mainstream media outlets have been frantically publishing dramatic articles and tributes that focus on possible reasons as to why Williams committed suicide – for example, mere days after his death was announced, a brief headline focusing on Williams’ possible bankruptcy screamed from the front page of the Daily Mail. Other mainstream newspapers have also chosen to focus on why Williams’ committed suicide, seeming completely bemused as to how a man who was so successful and well-loved and funny could also be mentally ill. This reaction has highlighted something that those of us with mental health issues have known for a long time – that society, on a whole, still does not know how to talk about suicide and mental health. That the mainstream media that is consumed by the general public on a regular basis still reinforces the idea that mental illness exists as a ‘result of’ something, that it is a personality trait that can be cured through willpower. That money, and love, and success are viable cures, because a mental illness is a choice rather than an actual disease.
However, there has been an antithesis to the insensitive and sensationalistic mainstream reports of Williams’ death – all over the Internet, on Facebook and alternative news websites, people have been fighting against society’s current misguided representation of mental illnesses in small but significant ways. Williams’ death seems to have resonated especially strongly with those who are living with mental illness or suicidal thoughts. To me, Williams’ death has had an extreme impact because, firstly, I grew up watching him. It’s as simple as that. Secondly, the fact that Williams was so open about his diagnosis of Bipolar disorder, his addictions, and readily talked about them and lived with them for so long, to commit suicide at 63, shows me two things that, as someone who lives with a mental illness, are terrifying to acknowledge and accept. The first is that mental illness does, as I have always known but never wanted to admit to myself, last for a long time, perhaps for a lifetime, and cannot necessarily always be forced into submission, no matter how hard you try. The second is that, despite the availability of helplines and the encouragement from mental health societies, doctors and professionals, talking about it is not necessarily the safety net or preventative method that we have been led to believe it is. It does not lighten the burden.
In response to Williams’ death, there have been outpourings of messages on social networking websites that often include the number of a suicide hotline and a sentiment along the lines of ‘please talk to someone if you are feeling depressed’. Although the intention behind this is wholly good and pure, it’s frustrating to read. We need to talk about mental illness in society. We need to talk about it in a way that is honest, and does not shame or oppress people living with mental illnesses. However, I don’t believe that this focus on encouraging those with mental illnesses to talk to someone is necessarily the answer.
Firstly, it puts the responsibility of reaching out on the person with the mental illness. Those who live with a mental illness or know someone who does will be aware that when you are mentally ill, particularly with Bipolar disorder, and you’re going through a manic or depressed phase and you desperately need help, you are not thinking logically and you sometimes do not even realise that you’re ill. Asking a person in that state to assume responsibility for their own wellbeing and health just seems absurd, and counterproductive.
Secondly, the sense of self-disgust and failure that accompanies many mental illnesses and mental states is unparalleled. Through personal experience, I’ve found that attempting to talk about my mental health to friends, family, or therapists only serves to highlight to myself how pathetic I am. In my head, I know exactly why I feel the way I do, and talking to someone else only proves to me how shameful and embarrassing it is that I cannot function like a normal human being, that I can’t complete the simplest of tasks. Also, something that is perhaps less mentioned is the intense bouts of frustration and anger that talking to someone about your mental health can cause. When talking to someone who, yes, may face troubles and obstacles in their life but manages to deal with them adequately and still be generally content and grateful for their life, you are reminded of all the qualities you do not possess. And sometimes, in the corner of your brain, the tiny thought creeps in, and it’s so pathetic that you can hardly bear to acknowledge it: ‘Why me?’ You pity yourself. You pity yourself, and you are angry that you are not able to live the life that seems to come to others so easily.
Another aspect of Williams’ death, and suicide in general, that has been picked up on within the mainstream media is the idea of selfishness, and the people he left behind. He had a wife, and children, and money, and a nice home. Why couldn’t he have held on for them, for a little bit longer?
What the papers and the news channels and the people asking this question don’t realise is that Williams did hold on. He tried so hard for them. In terms of a chronic, long-term illness, which mental illnesses are and should be recognised as such, Williams’ far outlived his prognosis. Suicide is generally considered by society to be tragic but selfish, especially when it is carried out by someone who possesses things that society deems to be markers of happiness – a family, a nice house, a successful career. By these definitions, Robin Williams should have been living in a state of constant gratitude and ecstasy. But mental illness does not respond to logic. A suicidal person is not able to divvy up the positive and negative aspects of their life and decide that, on the whole, it isn’t actually too bad.
Similarly, the act of suicide is not necessarily born out of a lack of love, or the ability to not see the love that one is on the receiving end of. I’m sure that Robin Williams knew that his wife and children loved him, and I’m sure that he reciprocated that love completely. That’s why I find it so sweet, so frustrating, and so ultimately misguided when a mentally ill, suicidal person is told not to do anything drastic, because they are loved. You can be loved and still be mentally ill, still be suicidal. It’s not that you are unaware or ignorant of that love. It’s just that the self-disgust and hatred that you feel is so much stronger than any love that anyone could ever give you.
Another common reaction to Williams’ suicide is, ‘Why didn’t he think of what this would do to his wife and children?’ Whenever I hear this sentiment, I am reminded of a beautiful but haunting anonymous comment that I read on a seminal gossip website OhNoTheyDidn’t. The comment was in response to the overdose and death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a remark that had been made by another commenter which stated that they couldn’t understand why Hoffman had taken heroin when he had his children to think of. The anonymous commenter, an ex-addict, replied with, ‘I want you to know that when I was using [drugs], I was never thinking of my children. They never even crossed my mind. I hope that this offers some comfort to them.’
The implication of the comment – that when one is in the midst of addiction, one is not thinking of anything but the addiction and whatever means are necessary to satisfy it, to kill the psychic pain they are feeling – also applies to mental illness, I think. The two often go hand in hand, after all. When a person is in a suicidal mindset, they are not thinking of their family, and how they feel about them, and ultimately deciding that they are not ‘worth’ it. They are in so much pain that all they are thinking of is how to rid themselves of it.
Robin Williams’ death is tragic, of course, but not in the way that mainstream media defines it. It is tragic because he was suffering from a very real and deadly disease, one that he was very knowledgeable and open about, and society is still not listening to what is being said. Williams’ death, however, and its repercussions has made me even more aware of something that may sound selfish, and ultimately simplistic – that you can grow older, and achieve success, and find someone whom you love and who loves you, and settle down into the life you have wanted, and it still won’t be enough. I am not a naive person. I know that true happiness and contentment is rarely a result of something as simple as working towards and achieving some tangible thing. I know that mental illness is not a logical response to what is bad, or unfair, or unjust – that it is not just an emotional state born out of the realisation that life’s assets and debts never quite even out. For over 12 years, I have known that, and I have attempted to make some sort of peace with it. However, I had allowed myself to believe society’s doomed mantra, that if you suffer for a while then it will eventually be worth it, because you will be rewarded in kind. That contentment is something you work towards, and suffer for, and that this is a normal and healthy attitude to have.
Williams’ death – and Williams himself, who had an unflinchingly honest approach to his own mental illness – has made me realise that no, I refuse to believe this. I refuse to believe that the intensity and destructiveness of mental illness is anything that anyone should have to live with. And that is what society’s attitude towards mental illness does – it forces us to live with it. Dedicated charities may exist, and there may be helplines, and doctors may be more willing to prescribe medications, but it’s 2014 and this is a disease and it is killing us. There is no urgency. There is an acceptance, a welcoming of defeat – a chorus of comments such as, ‘at least they’re at peace now.’ But what is the cost? To lose people, and to be lost to them. I have lost a lot of people. I have been lost to a lot of people. What society does not want to acknowledge is that suicide is not something the mentally ill person desires, or craves, or even wants. It is not desirable. There is still the implication in society that suicide is a choice. There is no choice in death. It’s David Foster Wallace’s burning building. No one welcomes the jump with open arms. It’s just that the fear of the flames is so much stronger.
The response to Williams’ death has been mixed, and it has encouraged those of us with mental illnesses to vocalise our struggles and frustrations. In addition to this, those who have read recent accounts written by people with mental illnesses are recognising that these are the voices to be listened to and trusted, and are sharing and supporting these articles and statuses and quotes. This may only be a baby step towards changing the way in which mental illness is talked about, but it is an important and welcome one. However, we are only a small minority, and the mainstream media is still holding tight to its archaic and damaging perceptions of mental illnesses and disorders. Society wants us to talk about mental illness, in the hope that we might facilitate some sort of change. Please, listen.