The discussions following Robin Williams’ suicide are both encouraging, in that people are actually talking about mental illness and suicide; and horrifying, in that there is still so much ignorance and misinformation out there.
I am talking about the Fox News anchor who called Robin Williams a coward, on the air. I expect ignorance from Fox News, so perhaps I shouldn’t have gasped the way I did when I read that. I did, though, because to me ignorance – especially wilful ignorance – will always be shocking.
I am talking about the many, many comments I have seen on Facebook and in news articles about his death calling him selfish. It’s not that I don’t understand these sentiments. I understand them all too well. I spent the first six months after Tony died in a white-hot rage, and I acknowledge that I called him selfish and a lot of other things during that time. It’s a natural reaction to suicide. It feels like something that’s been done TO the survivors. I get that, I truly do. Yet that perception, as true as it feels to those left behind, is not helpful. It only further stigmatizes people who already feel alone.
I might have blogged about this anyway – I probably would have – but then I saw a reference to another blog, and when I went looking for it, the breadth of ignorance did more than make me gasp. It knocked the wind out of me and made me see red, all at once.
I am not going to link to the blog here, because the blogger in question – his name is Matt Walsh – would like that too much. If you want to go look him up, feel free. He’s an ignoramus, so be forewarned.
This is a small taste – and I apologize for the rank flavor, but I can’t rebut him without quoting at least a bit of what he wrote – of what he had to say about Robin Williams, and about suicide in general:
“The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope. The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”
The ignorance and sanctimony are breathtaking, aren’t they? Tony didn’t REFUSE to see the worth in anything, or the beauty. He was not ABLE to see them, because his mental illness was so severe. He did not do what he did to burden me with grief and sadness, he did it to end his own pain. Although I never met him, I feel confident saying that the same is true of Robin Williams. I think he fought his mental illnesses for a long time, and they just got to be too much for him.
Walsh goes on to say:
“It’s a tragic choice, truly, but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision.”
In the sense that ultimately, Tony was the instrument of his own death, I sort of understand what he’s saying here. And yet, again, he’s wrong. Suicide may not attack you like cancer, but depression does. Bipolar disorder does. Schizophrenia does. So-called mental illnesses are diseases of the brain, a solid organ in our bodies. In that sense, they are not different from cancer or diabetes or congestive heart failure. The sad truth is that sometimes our bodies turn on us. They are, in the end, vulnerable vessels, and susceptible to all kinds of intrusions and malfunctions. The brain is no different.
Where mental illness DOES differ from cancer or the other diseases I mentioned is in the way it is perceived, and treated. When a woman finds a lump in her breast, she is expected to go to the doctor. If she has insurance, her insurance will cover that treatment, probably with few limitations. She will certainly not be made to feel that her ailment is different from any other disease. She will not be stigmatized for seeking treatment. She will not be met with any suggestion that positive thinking or willpower will cure her. She will find support everywhere: pink everything, walks for the cure, millions of dollars of research money and a whole month of heightened awareness, every single year.
A person suffering from any form of mental illness has none of those things. He is lucky if even a portion of his treatment will be covered, and if it is, it may only be covered on an emergent basis. If routine care – meaning psychiatric treatment or therapy — is covered, it is often covered at a reduced percentage and carries with it a stigma that lingers even in our post-Prozac world. He may be told, by well-intentioned individuals, that he should just go for a walk every day, or focus on happy thoughts. He may be told that the way he is feeling is HIS fault, which of course will do very little by way of empowering him to seek treatment. If it’s his fault, after all, shouldn’t HE be able to fix it? Alone? In the end, if he takes his own life, he is more alone than at any other time. Clearly, he was not able to fix it.
One final rancid tidbit from Mr. Walsh:
“Second, we can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression.”
Right. It’s just that easy. If only Tony could have rustled up some joy out of thin air, if only he could have silenced the voices in his head and the crushing weight of despair and just latched on to some ethereal passing JOY, then he’d still be here. There are things I will never understand about Tony and why he did what he did, but I’ll tell you this: if he could have done that, he would have. Period. And so would Robin Williams. And so would the one million people every single year who take their own lives.
Suicide is a tragedy, both for the person who takes his own life and for those he leaves behind. It is preventable, but not with platitudes about joy and mind over matter. It is preventable, sometimes, with treatment and awareness and medicine. Not everyone who has cancer dies. Not everyone who has suicidal thoughts dies, either. I’ve mentioned this statistic before, but I will say it again because it bears repeating. More people die of suicide in the United States every year than die in car accidents. In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, 39,518 people in the United States took their own lives. The total who died in automobile accidents in that same period is 32,479. Over 700,000 people are treated in emergency rooms every year for self-inflicted injuries, and that’s in the United States alone. The estimated number of suicides per year worldwide is over a million. That number, as horrifying as it is, is probably low because of the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. Even in the United States, some states – like Texas – don’t report figures on military suicide.
Here is what I ask. Close your eyes, just for a minute, and try to imagine what would happen if insurers declared that they would no longer cover treatments for injuries received in car accidents. What would happen if they announced that treatment for breast cancer would be reduced, that there would be caps on the number of chemo treatments that a patient could receive? This is not a difficult question. There would be howls of outrage, a genuine uprising as people all over the country cried out with one voice against the injustice of it. Then ask yourself, where is the outrage over mental illness treatment? Why are families teetering on the edge of bankruptcy to get a beloved child the treatment she needs? Why are we telling our most fragile and scared people to just snap out of it?
Matt Walsh is an ass, but I’m actually weirdly grateful for his blog post, just as I was for Martha Beck’s glib comments about suicide last year. Public ignorance is so much easier to battle.