When someone dies of lung cancer, the headlines never read: “John Doe commits suicide by a lifetime of smoking.” When an overweight person dies of a heart attack, no one comments on how, “Jane Doe killed herself by overeating.”
So why, when someone with mental illness commits suicide, do we walk a path we’d consider an absolute atrocity in any other situation? Because, even though we all know better, we continue to treat mental illness differently than physical illness. Robin Williams chose to die no more than a smoker dying of cancer or a person with weight issues succumbing to a heart attack. One could even argue that Williams was less able to chart his own course given the insidiousness of mental illness.
There are an estimated 10 million Americans with some form of serious mental illness, according to the National Institutes for Mental Health. Serious mental illness means a significant impairment that “substantially” interferes with or limits at least one major life activity. Which, if you think about it, sounds a lot like cancer or diabetes or asthma or MS or any other physical impairment that our
society would take seriously and treat as a disease.
I've read many statements about Williams’ death, including “by his own hand,” “apparent suicide,” and “killed himself, leaving a loving family behind.” These statements each presume that there was a choice in the matter, that Robin Williams sat in his favorite chair, poured himself a cup of tea, and went through a logic-based analysis of whether his family, the world, and he himself would be better off with him continuing this life or not. I've not seen a single article, from any major news source, that focused on the presumption that Williams had fallen victim to his illness, as if he’d had cancer or heart disease.
Psychology is still too-often called a pseudo-science because there is so much more subjectivity in it than in other medical fields. But we have come to accept depression, bipolar, obsessive compulsive, and alcoholism as real diseases and most of us have friends, family members, or co-workers who have suffered from these. So we not only know that they exist and are real; we also know how debilitating they can be. And while we shake our fists in rage and lose patience at our loved-ones, wondering why they can’t just “pull out of it,” we also know, at a core level, that it’s not their fault.
So if we know, why can’t we invest more resources into better understanding something that affects as many as 22 million Americans each year? And why can’t we eliminate the stigma that still surrounds people suffering from mental illness like a storm cloud? If we can develop a strategy to decrease stigma for people suffering from breast cancer or HIV, we can certainly do it for mental illness as well.
Maybe Robin Williams, one of the kindest and funniest men in our generation, can be the spark that lights this fuse. And maybe next time, the headlines will read, “Robin Williams, 63, succumbs after a valiant fight against mental illness.” And we’ll all know it wasn't a choice.