Like so many, I was intensely saddened to learn of actor Robin Williams’ death by suicide a few months ago. I honor Williams’ life and will be forever grateful for the joy and other emotional experiences he allowed me. Perhaps, I am most grateful that his gifts are permanently recorded and will be shared with our posterity, undoubtedly.
The public’s reaction to the news is as profound and varied as Williams’ body of cinematic work. Social media is flooded with overt messages of immense praise and gratitude for Williams. But, I imagine people are internally and more privately struggling with equally immense questions and thoughts about the situation. For example, “How could someone so important fail to recognize his own significance?” “How could someone full of life and choose to end his life in this way?” Unfortunately, suicide is something I am all too familiar with personally and professionally and, while I cannot speak for Williams (or anyone) and cannot fully answer these questions, I offer these thoughts to anyone who has questions, wants to know how to help or what to say, and/or who is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts:
Depression (often marked by feelings of hopelessness that lead to suicide) is a mental illness. People do not choose physical illnesses and they do not choose mental illnesses. Therefore, it is inappropriate to use language that deduces the act of suicide to choice. Instead of saying “S/he committed suicide,” (as we would describe someone who chose to commit a crime), it is more appropriate and accurate to say “S/he died by suicide” (as we would describe someone who died from cancer).
As firmly as I believe that acquiring mental illness is not a choice, I believe that (in most cases) recovery from mental illness, such as depression, is. That said, recovery requires tremendous effort, vulnerability, and resources. Though individuals, groups, and policy makers have made great strides to increase awareness and resources for people suffering from mental illness, we can do better…we must do better.
To those who experience thoughts of death/suicide, I say this:
1. There is always hope; however, you must ascribe to the belief that hope exists in order to experience the tremendous power it holds. Hope, in its purest form, means that things will get better…and they will, but only if you believe they will.
2. Things will get better when you seek help. It is nearly impossible to tackle mental illness, and especially crippling depression, independently. If you have sought help that has not been effective in the past, keep looking. Search for a treatment team of providers who are willing to explore with you relational, familial, spiritual and intrapersonal dynamics; find a psychiatrist who is willing to help you identify the right combination of medications (if needed).
3. The circumstances that led to your depression, whatever they may be, do not define you, your worth, or your capabilities.
4. You matter to someone. The belief that you do not matter is most assuredly a distortion, so do not make choices based on twisted and inaccurate perceptions. If, in your darkest of thoughts, you have trouble identifying someone to whom you matter, know this…you matter to me. We may not have met; we may never meet, but as a social worker, I am personally and professionally obliged to believe in the worth and dignity of every individual. As such, I believe in you and your worth and therefore, you matter to me.
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety or are having thoughts of death, please contact us at 205-409-4220. We will do everything we can to help you manage the crisis and identify resources.
With hope and appreciation for all,