In the wake of the terrible news of Robin Williams’ suicide, there have been many touching memorials and tributes, including this now (inf)amous tweet from The Academy:
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot of links to articles arguing that this tweet is problematic and in bad taste. While I understand where people making this argument are coming from, and assume that their intentions are pure in doing so, I have to respectfully disagree. I want to dig into this topic today because I feel that reactions and controversy to Robin Williams’ suicide really highlights the problematic way that we understand and treat mental illness in this country.
The main problem people have with this message is that it suggests that death is liberation, that for a person struggling with depression, suicide would mean freedom. I understand that point of view, and I would never want to suggest to a person struggling with depression that suicide is the best option. It probably isn’t.
But let’s entertain this idea: say Williams had died of cancer, and this same tweet was published. People would read it as him being free from the misery and pain of the disease. People would find solace in this. But we don’t treat mental illness and depression the same way we do physical diseases like cancer. When a person dies of cancer, they are a victim who fought to the very end. But when a person dies at his/her own hands due to depression, many will quickly judge and determine it a selfish choice that the person made.
Let’s talk about that, that idea of suicide always being wrong and always being a selfish choice. In my darkest moments I have never gotten to the point of suicidal thoughts, and I am very lucky for that. I can’t even imagine just how awful that degree of depression must be, and that’s just the thing– if you have no experience with that kind of depression, it’s hard to understand what that person is going through. Even more, it should make it harder to judge someone in those darkest moments, and yet we do.
For many people in the throes of deep depression, suicide is not just a choice, it seems like the only choice. I’ve heard many talk about how they felt that to continue living was selfish and burdensome to their loved ones, and that suicide was the least selfish choice to make. If you’ve never been in that position, try to empathize, try to imagine just how utterly shitty that is.
Depression is a disease, just like any physical disease. It is not the result of a person’s poor choices or lack of emotional strength. By taking the emphasis off of the suffering and misery, and emphasizing instead the selfishness of a suicide, the bigger risk is that more people will not seek treatment. When we write off suicide as nothing more than a choice, a black and white issue where anyone who does it is deeply flawed, we alienate those who are on the precipice and who really need help. In those darkest moments of depression, a person doesn’t need a “reality check” or “a come to Jesus moment;” that person needs compassion and empathy.
Depression is hard to understand; I’ll admit that I don’t always fully understand how others might feel or why they feel that way. But the best explanation I have heard addresses the misconception that the opposite of depression is joy; that if a depressed person could just find some joy, it will all be okay. That seems like a natural way to understand what depression is, but it’s just false. The reality is that the opposite of depression is just…caring about anything at all, being able to feel something other than apathy. “Joy” isn’t even a goal or a priority; “feeling” is. Again, as someone who has never been there, I can only imagine just how scary that must feel, and how frustrating and lonely it must be. And while I can only imagine what it must be like, I also understand that it probably feels much worse than what I am assuming. Depression is not just feeling blue and having a bad few days. Going out for a walk or having some ice cream cannot wash it all away. We as a culture need to better understand the complexities of depression, and to quit treating it like nothing more than a character flaw. We need to understand that it is a disease, and understand that there is still a lot we don’t understand about it.
So back to that tweet. On the surface it just seems like a thoughtful tribute to a great actor, comedian, and all around decent human being, using a sweet line from one of his movies. But by acknowledging that Williams is now “free,” it acknowledges the shackles of this still misunderstood disease, and it acknowledges the pain and suffering that he and his loved ones have endured. Williams inspired so many through laughter and tears, through thoughtful insight and child-like glee in the world around him. May his lasting legacy be that he also inspires us to seek compassion and understanding.