Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mental Illness Killed Robin Williams

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.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Middle East Ripple Effects

On July 23rd, 2014, Jews in France were threatened and looted because of Israeli actions against Palestinians over 4500 kilometers away. While Jews continue to face discrimination in many places, they are seldom attacked en masse as they were in France. Could this be the beginning of a new international trend where Jews worldwide begin paying the price for, if not the reality, at least the perception of how Israel treats Palestinians?

More compelling, could events like this result in Israel finally realizing that its actions, justified or not, are resulting in a perception that it can no longer afford to ignore?

This is not about Israel’s right to exist or international support for a Jewish state. However, while most agree that Hamas is a terrorist organization, far too many sadly now believe the same about Israel.

It is a terrible reality that most of Israel’s closest neighbors loathe its existence and have national platforms calling for its destruction. Hamas’ own charter specifically indicates that “Israel will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it.”

Because of that, Israel’s intense focus about its own survival is justified on any level and their instincts to defend themselves simply cannot be called “morally unacceptable.” But their policies can and should be questioned, especially given the mounting numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties. And while Hamas is at least as much to blame as Israel for those casualties, Israel aspires to be better than that. More on that later.

As Ali Rizvi recently wrote, it is no longer just speculation that Hamas puts its own citizens in harm’s way. Hamas own spokesperson called the human shield strategy “very effective.” And effective it has been, because Israel is now being perceived as sanctioning civilian casualties.

What France reminded us is that the Jewish homeland is now the entire planet. When threats to Jewish people living in Europe start escalating into episodes not seen there since World War II, it should cause very serious concern to everyone.

Israel: Even if you are in the right, you are not being perceived that way. And if Jews throughout the world start suffering because of your policy decisions, that might be a signal it really is time to try something different. Followers of a religion are getting blamed and punished for the behavior of a nation on whose ground the vast majority have never stood.

Combine this with the hard-to-ignore reality that a half-century long generally unchanging strategy of national defense has failed to achieve peace. While it is not fair or right to blame Israel solely for this reality, it remains, nonetheless, reality.

Ripple effects that can no longer be ignored have collided with the definition of insanity.

It is time for a Palestinian state. There is simply no other solution that takes not only the Palestinians (and the support they have all over the world) into account, but also the Israelis themselves and, now, Jews throughout the world as well. Support for a two state solution is not synonymous with support for Hamas.

What is the difference between a peace treaty with Hamas leading Palestinians and a peace treaty with Hamas leading Palestine? If the State of Palestine attacked Israel, the international community would have no choice but to support Israel and, perhaps, increase internal support for Fatah instead of Hamas. When a bunch of poor, starving, Palestinians fight for their freedom, and die by the thousands, the choice is far more ambiguous.

It is never easy to hold oneself to a higher standard, especially when surrounded by others who will exploit it. But as the US has learned through the Iraq invasion and the torture discussions of the last decade, one wrong move by a nation who aspires to be better can obliterate its claims to the moral high ground.

Like the US, Israel holds itself to a higher standard. But innocent civilians keep dying and the perception of blame continues to shift. And if July 23rd becomes a common theme rather than a solitary event, maybe Israel will start looking at other solutions and finally find a way to lead the way to a lasting peace.