(Dead Poet's Society)
We in the UK woke up this morning to the sad news of the passing of Robin Williams. For the moment pending a full investigation the coroner has given an initial verdict of suicide via asphyxia and Williams’ publicist has confirmed the actor’s long running battle with severe depression.
I will be very clear. I do not suffer with depression – I never have. Some of those close to me do so, but I appreciate this gives me no idea at all how the condition manifests and how it feels to be a sufferer. I don’t want to use this post (or any other) to appropriate anyone else’s problem or indeed talk about something I lack the right and requisite knowledge to tackle correctly.
However, the passing of Robin Williams has served to illustrate the on-going stigma society places on mental illness, particularly in comparison with physical ill health – and that I feel I can talk about successfully. I’ve written about how poorly this is often treated before in A Silence of Three Parts, but I wanted to illustrate something specific here.
Depression by its very nature is a long running, complex and often incurable disease. It shares the same space as many other “invisible” illnesses in that treatment is limited to managing the condition and its symptoms. Often there is no rhyme or reason, and if a person often held to be one of the funniest men on the planet can succumb then it truly illustrates that the disease is indiscriminate and can strike anyone anywhere at any time.
Many will think I’m delving into semantics here and little else, but I ask that you stay with me on this. Semantics are important in the context of how we label and therefore understand the world around us. Our use of words often shows a great deal of the thought process behind such words.
Reading the various reports of Williams’ death this morning, one thing is abundantly clear.
We as a society regard suicide as a choice freely and willingly made. In doing so we completely divorce it from the background leading up to it, and therein I think lies the biggest problem in terms of stigma and misunderstanding.
I’ll explain the context in which I’m criticising that view, before you reach for a pitchfork. Let’s say for example someone had died of a heart attack after a history of heart problems. The heart attack would be regarded as an upsetting but valid complication of the historical underlying condition and in all likelihood nothing would be questioned any further.
Why therefore do we not allow for suicide being a complication of on-going depression?
(The Black dog - sane.org.uk)
The logic is just as sound in both cases, but as a society we seem to have a huge problem accepting mental ill health to be as genuine and blameless as cancer, heart disease, arthritis or any other physical ailment. In my experience people seek to apportion fault with the sufferer – how many times have you seen “Just think positive!” or “If you just cheered up a bit...” thrown in the face of the genuinely ill?
Saying things like that is seeking to place blame. In saying that a person could help themselves by changing their behaviour you invalidate the idea that the condition exists regardless. Most of us have some small capacity to improve our surroundings in a way that can be helpful to overall health, but that does not make us responsible for the hand we are dealt. Nobody asks to be depressed, in just the same way nobody asks to contract cancer. I most certainly didn’t ask for Petunia to show up either whilst we’re on the subject.
I am venturing into the realms of opinion now, because I can’t call up the ghost of every tragic suicide victim the world over and ask them to corroborate my thoughts for me. Be that as it may, I don’t believe that any individual completely devoid of illness chooses to commit suicide.
Notice how I didn’t add “physical or mental” to that statement? I shouldn’t need to – and this is where my point about semantics comes in. There should be no need to qualify whether an illness is physical or mental – it is simply an illness and that should be enough.
In summary I’d like to ask (if you have the time) that people have a look at my post here. It links up to Dead Poet’s Society and why that film meant so much to me – it’s the only fitting tribute I can offer for Robin Williams’ talent and work. Williams’ character Professor John Keating says in the film that “Words and language can change the world”.
A little kindness and compassion for one another can do that too.
RIP Oh Captain, my captain.
Wishing you all many spoons xxx
Wishing you all many spoons xxx