Depression is an illness – not a lifestyle choice!
I was away on holiday this week when news of Robin Williams death reached me via my
Facebook newsfeed, and I was deeply saddened to read that he had taken his own life. I had not been aware previously of his battles with addiction and mental illness, and like so many others, only knew of him through his comedy and films.
I thought twice about writing this blog. I am generally not one to speak out publically when people die, or terrible things happen – it always feels a bit like jumping on the bandwagon, exploiting someone else’s misfortune to say things that would never had been said if they were still alive.
Those that know me will know that I am not one with a general interest in celebrities and the
vagaries of their lives, and whilst every untimely death is tragic, many of these stories simply
pass me by. Not so with this.
There is something about Robin Williams’ death which has touched me deeply; it has got
under my skin and left feelings of sadness in me which I’m struggling to understand. Since
returning from Cornwall yesterday, I have been looking at the many news reports, stories
and tributes to this great man – and I’ve been trying to work out what it is about him, and his
passing, that has struck such a chord with me.
What keeps coming back to me over and over, and leaves such a profound sense of
sadness, is that someone who brought so much joy and laughter to innumerable lives could,
though mental illness, be denied those feelings in his own life. It seems such a cruel irony!
I have read the headlines , “What did he have to be depressed about?” – like there’s a selfish ingratitude in someone like Robin Williams being depressed and taking his own life; a
lifestyle choice to turn his back on all the positive and good that surrounded him.
There’s an echo in those words, a memory stirred from when my daughter’s depression took her to the edge of suicide. “What has she got to be depressed about?”, people used to say to me – she’s so pretty, clever, popular, funny and so on …
Do you think being told that would make you feel any better? No, it is likely to make you feel even worse – makes you feel a failure all over again, for not being able to appreciate the good things in your life, reinforces your sense of worthlessness, and feelings of guilt and
shame. I can only imagine that for someone like Robin Williams, famous and universally
known, not being able to enjoy what you have and all you’ve achieved must have been so,
Because this is not a choice! Nobody would choose this for themselves, any more than they
would choose to have cancer, or any other potentially life-limiting illness. Mental illness is
just that – an illness. And just because it’s an illness of the mind and not the body, does not
make it any less real or any less of an illness. Like any illness, it needs treatment, and for
many this is simply not available when it is most needed.
My son broke his leg when he was 6 years old. He cried with the pain, but within hours
he was in hospital, receiving appropriate pain relief and treatment. People offered him
sympathy and understanding; the cast on his leg identified the problem. Friends and
teachers understood his limitations, knew there were things he would struggle to do, made
allowances and accommodated his needs. Why then are we so ill-prepared to make
allowances for someone who is struggling mentally?
My daughter developed severe mental health issues at the age of 15. For several years,
depression, anxiety, eating issues and self-harm reduced her life to a desolate wasteland.
She cried in pain every day, but her pain was emotional not physical. It took 6 months to get
her any help, during which time her symptoms deteriorated to the point where she no longer
wanted to live. She could no longer cope with the pain she was feeling. Maybe that’s why
I’m so touched by this story, because we came so close to losing her.
Why, in our society, is it considered acceptable that people with mental illness are so
frequently left unsupported? Why are they judged as weak or selfish? And why do people
think it’s ok to make comments like “snap out of it” or “pull yourself together”? Again, these
suggest there is an element of choice! Only those who haven’t witnessed what mental
illness can do to someone would make these comments.
And before passing judgement, people need to understand that mental illness is no
respector of fame, wealth, success, intelligence, looks … You can have all these things and
still struggle with mental illness – it can affect anyone at any time!
To those that judge someone for taking their life, we cannot know the pain that someone
else is feeling, or how desperate it must be for someone to find themselves in a situation
where suicide seems like the only option. It is beyond heart-breaking to think of anyone
finding themselves in such a place.
To those who say that Robin Williams’ suicide was selfish and a ‘waste’, I would say this …
Robin Williams has brightened this world with his talent, generosity and warmth, and whilst
it will be a poorer place without him, his life is not ‘wasted’. How can it be when his comic
genius and often poignant acting has touched and enriched so many lives – including mine.
He had left a legacy that will live on, and continue to bring joy and laughter which, it would
seem, is what he most wanted to do.
RIP Robin Williams
If you are affected by depression, and struggling with suicidal thoughts, please talk to
someone – a friend, family member or health professional. Or you can call Samaritans 24
hours a day on 08457 90 90 90