In the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, a few prominent people in the media, and hundreds of everyday citizens with access to social media, have criticized the actor and comedian. One news anchor, who has since apologized, called Williams a “coward” for committing suicide. A fellow actor called Williams’ suicide “selfish” before he, too, apologized. Others, such as media personality Debbie Schlussel, have condemned Williams for killing himself — without offering a subsequent apology.
There was a swift rebuttal, via tweets and blog posts, to Schlussel and others. I would like to think this shows that our country has embraced an enlightened, and scientifically sound, understanding of what mental illness, particularly depression, is — and how it can be as dangerous as a fast-moving cancer.
But I’m not convinced that the critical response to the people who have called Williams’ suicide selfish and cowardly represents the thinking of most Americans.
I suspect most Americans, if not exactly sharing Schlussel’s point of view, are at least perplexed by Williams’ death.
Why would someone as famous, talented and wealthy as Robin Williams kill himself?
Why would someone who clearly loved being a father — whose final social-media post was a celebration of his 25-year-old daughter — “choose” to bring such heartbreak to his family?
Why couldn’t Williams simply have toughed out whatever sadness he was feeling until a better day dawned?
Had I not experienced a severe depression in my mid-30s, I would have had similar questions. But having lived through a life-threatening episode of clinical depression, and having subsequently read at length on the subject, I feel called upon to speak for Williams and others whose fatal encounters with “the black dog,” as depression is sometimes called, might be misunderstood and who might be maligned as a result.
Why would someone as famous, talented, and wealthy as Robin Williams kill himself?
Neither fame nor wealth nor talent — nor, even, love — can inoculate us against such a powerful and relentless illness. Suffering from severe depression is like having a knife jammed in your heart. No amount of fortune or fame can stop the extraordinary pain.
Why would a loving father “check out” (in the phrase used by one commentator on social media) on his children? Isn’t suicide, indeed, kind of … well … selfish?
If someone suffering from depression is able to think about anything beyond his pain, his thinking is likely to be warped. Depression can convince its sufferers that they have become an intolerable burden on their families — that they have disgraced their families — that their families would be better off without them. Depression can obliterate a person’s self-esteem — even an Academy Award winner’s. Depression can make its sufferers feel worthless and dispensable.
People in the throes of severe depression can see suicide as the opposite of selfish. They can perceive it as a selfless act — as an unburdening of the disgraceful burden they believe they have become to the people who love them.
Why couldn’t Williams have toughed out his depression?
Left untreated, an episode of severe depression can require as long as a year to recover from. Anti-depressants, if they work at all, often don’t bring relief for six weeks.
Imagine — again — a knife jammed in your heart.
Or imagine your brain blazing with a perpetual fire.
Or imagine living with a fever of 104 degrees.
How long could you last in these circumstances without seeking immediate relief?
Unfortunately, when a person is severely depressed, suicide can seem like the only relief.
It isn’t, of course. There is a broad range of effective treatments for depression, from electro-convulsive therapy to talk therapy. For someone who is suicidally depressed, however, there is only one immediately effective treatment: hospitalization.
In a psychiatric ward, depressed patients are deprived of the means to kill themselves and recovery can begin.
But hospitalization is expensive. And it comes with a stigma — a stigma that often causes depressives and their families from seeking it.
If you have cancer, you go to a cancer center. If you’re depressed, you go to “the nuthouse.”
Rather than condemn Williams, we should, in his memory and in recognition of the thousands of Americans who succumb to severe depression every year, strive to make treatment of mental illness less costly — and work to ensure that its sufferers feel less ashamed.
Mark Brazaitis, a professor of English at West Virginia University, is the author of “The Incurables,” a collection of stories about people struggling with mental illnesses.