On the death of Robin Williams and its consequences

I would be lying if I told you that the death of Robin Williams didn’t affect me. It did, and it did so very profoundly. Although I never knew Mr. Williams, I enjoyed his comedy very much. His quick wit and personality were something that I tried to emulate in my own life. I tried to be the funniest guy in the room, many times failing, but many times succeeding and making other people happy. A friend of mine told me that Mr. Williams likely committed suicide when he realised that his sadness inside could infect others, contrary to what he had set himself out to do in life. I agree.

Mr. Williams’ suicide is going to have a lot of consequences. Friends of mine in the mental health field have told me that a lot of people are reaching out to suicide prevention groups to do everything from talking to asking for help. His death has also brought mental health in general, and suicide in particular, to the forefront of our discussions as a nation. (If only we weren’t so preoccupied with things like Ebola in West Africa and wars all over the goddamned place.) If you look at the numbers, there are twice as many suicides as homicides in this country, which should be all the evidence we need to demand a revolution in how we treat people with mental health.

There are many evidence-based treatment for mental health problems, including a variety of medications and therapies. While the fields of psychiatry and psychology are sorely underfunded, plenty of information comes out year after year on what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, the great majority of the population doesn’t read journal articles. Instead, most people rely on what they hear or see on social media and experience in popular culture. As with the “vaccine wars,” it is sometimes dangerous what a celebrity (even a minor one) has to say about suicide and depression.

Staying with Mr. Williams’ case, a friend of his, comedian/actor Rob Schneider, took to Twitter to announce to the world that it was the medication that Mr. Williams was taking for his newly diagnosed Parkinson’s disease that triggered the successful suicide attempt. I don’t know if Mr. Schneider had confidential knowledge of the medications prescribed to Mr. Williams, but I do know that Mr. Schneider likes to dive into pseudo-science and make some “controversial” claims. For example, he has stated that vaccines cause all sorts of ailments:

“The doctors are not gonna tell you both sides of the issue… they’re told by the pharmaceutical industry, which makes billions of dollars, that it’s completely safe.”

“The efficacy of these shots have not been proven,” he later continued. “And the toxicity of these things — we’re having more and more side effects. We’re having more and more autism.”

Excuse me for being a little skeptical of Mr. Schneider’s assertion on what made Mr. Williams commit suicide. I can’t help myself, based on what he has said in the past. If he is making this assertion based only on the listed side effects of any medication used for Parkinson’s, then he is not helping anyone. He would not be helping people with moderate to severe depression or people with Parkinson’s.

The worst thing is that he would not be the only one whose statements can be “dangerous.” Plenty of other people of questionable mental health credentials came out shooting-off their mouths about what made Mr. Williams commit suicide, most if not all of it based on assumptions, most if not all of them wrong.

Mental Health and Hygiene

This whole thing with the child abuse allegations at Penn State reminded me of the biggest – or one of the biggest – problems in public health in the United States and elsewhere in the world. What could be just as bad as malnutrition and outbreaks of infectious disease? What can tear individuals and their families apart like very few other things can and still be largely ignored as a problem?

Mental health.

I remember the look on the face of one of my ex-girlfriends when I told her that I had gone to talk to a counselor. She was shocked. Instead of asking me if there was something she could do, she asked me what was “wrong” with me and if she should be worried about me, not for me. I explained to her that the workload of school and my two jobs at the time were getting to be too much, and that I needed to talk to someone who would hold my thoughts in confidence and see problems from outside and without much bias.

That wasn’t enough for her. She retreated from our relationship to the point that we broke it off after a few weeks. Later, I would find out that she started spreading the rumor that I was “crazy”, so much so that I got pulled into the boss’ office to talk about my “problem”. Can you imagine if I really did have some sort of a paranoid disorder?

I also remember a time when an uncle of mine tried to commit suicide and how the family reacted. Many of them branded him a “sinner” because, through some twisting of their logic and their religion, suicide attempts are sinful, something that God hates.

Uh, no.

And these same stories repeat themselves over and over again each and every day all over the world. People who seek mental health care are branded as being crazy or inherently broken. People with addictions are thrown in jail and forgotten. People with trauma of some kind are branded as being “weak” or just not able to deal with life. And don’t get me started on the stigmas of people with depression.

Yeah, like you can be cheery all the time in this economy.

Listen, when you get hepatitis, your liver is infected and doesn’t act normal. It makes you sick on the outside, making you look yellow from all the bilirubin. If you get pneumonia, you’ll be coughing and very miserable. So why is it any surprise that an illness of he brain manifests itself in our mood and in the way we interact with the world. How we see the world is processed by the brain, so it stands to reason that anything wrong with the brain will change our view of the world.

It’s the cultural and social stigma that is associated with mental health problems that really gets to me. I hate it when people say that someone who is addicted to a drug – or food, or anything – is broken or has some sort of control over their addiction. It’s called an addiction for a reason, and it needs to be addressed because addictions don’t just affect the addict. The addict’s entire world is somehow affected, and that effect is most often not a constructive one. But there are so many people, many in power, who ignore their own addictions and treat addicts worse than lepers.

Mental health is a matter of public health that we need to address just like we would any other disease and any other outbreak thereof. We need to come together and work with experts in the field of mental health to look at what is going and attack it head-on. None of this, “it’s a private/family/personal matter” crap because it’s not. Sure, the underlying details of what has lead to the mental disease is private, as are the individual details, like those of any other medical patient, but the overall problem is all of ours.

I mean, I’m sitting here listening to an interview of Darrell Hammond on NPR and feeling very bad about all he’s gone through, how his mother’s mental disease infected him as well. I’m also very proud of him for coming out so sincerely about his condition and how it has affected his life, and I’m happy that a big outfit like NPR is publishing the interview. His book is definitely something I need to read… We all need to read.

Too many things need to be our “Manhattan Projects”, but this is one of those that we can’t allow to go uncontrolled any more.