Robin Williams' sudden and tragic death reminds us of the ripple effect we each have on those around us, of the countless lives that one person can touch. His loss has impacted millions, and the outpouring of love and support for him and his family is clearly evident. The media will cover his passing extensively and the reaction to his tragic death for most of us is like that of losing a close friend. Developments continue to appear in the story of this tragedy, with the most recent statement by Williams' wife noting that he suffered from the early stages of Parkinson's disease in addition to depression, substance abuse and anxiety. Despite his struggles, in his life and in his films, Robin Williams always seemed to know exactly what to say. So many of his lines are quotable, and yet, at his passing, we are stunned into silence.
But silence should not be the legacy of a man who caused entire theaters to burst into laughter. In the wake of this tragedy, we must find the strength for an ongoing conversation about mental health, a topic that is too often addressed in whispers. Mental illness affects all of us. One in four adults and one in five children, at any point in time, have a diagnosable mental illness and one of two Americans will suffer one at some point in their lives. Suicide will claim one American every 13 minutes and 12 times that number will make an attempt each day. However, as is the case this week, we often only consider mental health issues when a celebrity loses his or her life or a dramatic event happens. As a society, we have to do better than this.
As the public facts of Williams' case typify, the vast majority of those who attempt suicide suffer from a mental illness. Most feel desperate and they experience such psychic pain that, even with compelling reasons to live, suicide seems like the only solution. Often, suicide is preceded by periods of self-medication through drugs and alcohol, which offer immediate relief then contribute to agitation and increased depression upon withdrawal. We also know that most people who contemplate suicide have recently seen a physician and have confided in someone about their desperate feelings. Like any other chronic condition, a serious depression typically requires multiple courses of treatment, consistent family and social support and a lifestyle change that acknowledges that one is always "in recovery."
Our society must work to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness so that people will feel more willing to seek care. Reticence to seek help (and repeated help) due to fears of judgment (by others or oneself) is a significant contributor to tragic outcomes. We have excellent treatments, including medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy and psychodynamic therapy, and we need to do more to make these accessible to those in need. It is time to bring mental illness out of the shadows and into the spotlight. We should not wait for tragedy to strike before we raise our voices and fight for the proper mental healthcare.
Of course, this is easier said than done; something that will be achieved with long-term thought rather than short-term solutions. However, we have seen such change accomplished with many challenging medical conditions such as cancer and HIV/AIDS. We must anticipate that ending this stigma will take time, but that it is achievable if we all work to make it happen.
Sadly, there is nothing that we can do for this beloved man; but we can honor his memory by being the change that prevents others from taking their lives and suffering without adequate mental health resources. We need to make sure that conversations about depression, substance abuse and suicide do not stop when the news cycle's focus shifts away from Robin Williams' passing. Starting today, let's bring mental health into the spotlight. Let's repay Robin Williams for decades of laughs by helping those who also struggle with mental illness.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.