I spoke with a friend several days after the shocking news that Robin Williams had committed suicide. How could this beloved actor and storied comedian, my friend wondered, not understand or care that fans around the world adored him? And why, he further inquired, wasn’t that alone reason enough to live?
Nonetheless, this person, barely able to contain his sorrow, said he thought Mr. Williams “incredibly courageous” to have carried out such a deed.
Pausing to reflect and carefully measure my words as to not offend, I told him I vehemently disagreed with his statement: Suicide was not an act of courage, I said, but rather an act of consummate desperation. In other words, I would venture to say Robin Williams could fathom no other solution –could not problem solve his way through the muck and mire of his own depression, the emotional state so often present in those who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses.
My conversation with this individual, although somewhat predictable, was disturbing, for it spoke to the lack of understanding the general public has about mental illness and the stigma that persists surrounding such conditions. Why, I keep asking myself, are we so willing to understand, accept and have empathy for someone dealing with cancer and a myriad of other diseases, yet we turn our collective backs on the millions who suffer, many in silence, with the demons of their mental illness?
Since Mr. Williams took his life, I have thought a lot about suicide and what that means to the families, mine included, left behind to ponder the whys and wherefores of such an immense loss. What words can console the survivor dealing with the guilt, the sadness, and the self-doubt that reigns supreme when a friend or family member makes that final decision to end it all?
The truth is there are no words adequate at such a moment. What I do know is that until there is equity and better treatment of the mentally ill among us, suicide attempts and completions will continue to plague and baffle us. Because severe mental illness is a wound difficult to heal, parents, siblings, spouses and friends will go on searching within their hearts for answers to the unanswerable. And yes, there will always be pain.
It is my hope that the untimely passing of Robin Williams will serve to remind lawmakers and activists everywhere that there is much work to be done in order to right this injustice, and that the time to act is now. In one of his most famous movies, “Dead Poets Society,” Robin Williams urged his students to “Seize the Day.” Prophetic words, indeed.