A Wake Up Call For Mental Illness Awareness

Tragically, we lost Robin Williams this week to suicide.  I’ve read and spoken to many people about his death and almost all of them say the same thing: they just can’t understand why someone who was so funny, rich, famous, and had many family and friends who loved him would take his own life.

Robin Williams was bipolar and struggled with depression all of his life. I’ve written about mental illness here on several occasions.  Having bipolar and major depression myself, I have a very good, and personal understanding of the ravages of mental illness.

I tried to explain this to my coworkers, but none of them seemed to really grasp it. They would nod their heads in agreement when I told them how difficult mental illness is.  They superficially said they understood that mental illness is a physiological problem.  They agreed that our society needs to spend more time, money and effort studying and treating mental illness.  But in the end they just didn’t’ get it.

Because of the stigma of mental illness, because mental illness is something that affects your mood and behavior, they see it as something you should be able to control.  They, like most people, think that you just have to be strong, buck up, don’t let it get you down.  Of course, anyone who has or knows someone with bipolar, depression, or another mental illness knows that this is just not how mental illness works.

Even with medication and therapy there is no easy solution.  Finding the right medication or combinations of medications is trial and error and varies from person to person and even from one period of time to another.  These are chronic conditions that can change and morph as time goes on.  A medication that worked for the past few years just doesn’t seem to work well any more.

What most people don’t understand is that no matter how much money, fame, love and support you have, it often just doesn’t matter.  People like Robin who are in the depths of depression know that they are loved.  They know what a good life they have.  But they are so engulfed and crushed down by the weight of suffocating darkness, all that matters is ending the unbearable pain. They are desperate for a respite from crippling despair. Many try to find that relief through substance abuse, or cutting, or some other activity that can act as a distraction, but almost inevitably, they realize that all that these things do is mask the pain and darkness and that is everywhere they turn. Sadly, for many, including Robin, the only real escape is the final, irrevocable one: death.

Mental illness is just that, an illness, and like any illness, it needs to be identified and treated.  Sadly, due to social stigma, many people refuse to even consider that they may have a mental illness.  For those that do and seek help, there are often very limited options available to them.  Perhaps there just aren’t enough mental health resources in their area, or maybe they don’t have health insurance or their insurance offers insufficient coverage.

Today, not nearly enough resources and money are being spent to study and treat this scourge on our society.  I hope that some good can come of Robin Williams’s death so that more people will realize that much more needs to be done to treat mental illness in this country.  Hopefully the loss of this brilliant, talented soul who brought so much joy to so many will help remove the stigma of mental illness that is preventing so many from getting the help that they need.

Featured image by BagoGames


Jay is a dad, husband, and pet lover. He has a degree in Theater Arts and works as a Unix systems administrator, mainly because he has a degree in Theater Arts. He used to be a single dad, but now he is married to the perfect woman. He has two teenagers, a daughter, and a step-son. He also has an adult son. He shares his home with his wife, kids, an Australian Shepherd, and a bevy of adorable chihuahuas. He is a skeptic and humanist and tries to contribute to spreading rationality by writing about skeptical topics. You can find samples of his writing on his personal blog at Freethinking For Dummies, the JREF blog, and in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

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  1. Lack of awareness and stigma continue to be huge problems! It’s so sad when sufferers are in denial and/or refuse to seek treatment. People just need to keep talking about it, being open, and not judging. I also think that genomics will lead to more and more insight into mental illness in the next few years. Medication will no longer have to be the frustrating trial and error process, and pesky side effects should be eliminated.

    1. I’m hoping that you are right, Kavin, about genomics. It would help so many people. Along with that, though, is getting over the stigma. That will be the hardest part.

  2. Jay, this is so true. It’s up to people like us to keep talking about it and being open to break the stigma. After all, if people are afraid to seek treatment, the genomic information won’t become data!

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