At first, I was shocked but I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t believe Robin Williams was dead. Then, I was sad. I wasn’t the only person who found him to be one of the funniest people who ever lived. When I learned that he had killed himself, my shock gave way to understanding. With bipolar disorder, multiple addictions and the beginnings of Parkinson’s Disease, Williams was at extremely high risk for suicide.
Finally, I got angry. Not at Robin Williams for ending his life, but at what the media was covering, what celebrities were saying and how the commoners were reacting.
Over and over, I’ve heard that he wouldn’t have killed himself if he’d just talked to someone about his feelings. I have no doubt that Robin Williams knew it was ok to talk about his feelings. No one who has been in rehab, even once, hasn’t talked about his or her feelings. Have these people never watched Dr. Drew? Between private sessions and group therapy, a veteran of multiple rehab programs is practically a professional at talking about his or her feelings.
Telling someone who is suicidal that it’s ok to talk about his or her feelings is like telling someone with a broken arm that it’s ok to have it set. Suicide doesn’t happen because you don’t have anyone to talk to about your feelings. I can’t speak for Robin Williams, but when I was suicidal, I was sick to death of my feelings. I didn’t want to talk about them; I wanted them to go away. Suicide happens when you can’t take the pain anymore. It’s a way to end that pain.
And yet, people with mental disorders are being urged to talk, to share our stories. Even the Huffington Post has pledged to publish the stories of people with mental disorders on a regular basis to foster, as Arianna Huffington says, the connectedness that is proof against depression. The Huffington Post’s “Healthy Living section has just launched #StrongerTogether, which will serve as an open forum on living with depression or caring for someone who is.”
Sharing our stories is powerful, indeed, in creating connectedness. The most popular posts on Crazy Good Parent are the personal stories our readers share. I will probably read the #StrongerTogether posts. I’m sure others with mental disorders will, too. And we’ll feel less alone for doing it.
I’m not convinced, though, that people without mental disorders will read. Jimmy Kimmel’s tweet, “If you’re sad, please talk to someone”, is emblematic of the level of misunderstanding and fear “normal” people feel when confronted with mental illness. He can’t even say the word depressed. And his request that we talk to “someone” almost screams, “but not me.”
That’s part of the problem. Yes, people with mental disorders need to talk about their feelings, and certainly there are those who will be encouraged to as more of us make our stories known. But who is going to listen?
About .52% of the US population will be diagnosed with cancer in any given year. Contrast that with the fact that some 25% of the population is affected by mental illness in the same time period. In October, America is awash with pink. The NFL allows its players to wear pink throughout the month, despite strict regulations regarding uniforms. Last year, Chicago Bears player Brandon Marshall, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, was fined for wearing bright green shoes in a game on October 13, during National Mental Health Awareness Week. He paid the fine and matched it in a donation to an unspecified charity, possibly his own foundation devoted to raising awareness of mental illness and bringing access to those in need.
Americans know what to do when someone is choking. They know what to do when someone has a heart attack. They would never think to say, “Wow. You seem to be having some issues with your heart. You know it’s ok to talk about that.”
That is exactly what we do when we tell people with mental disorders that they should talk to someone when they feel sad. When someone is having a heart attack, you call 911 and then start CPR. Even if you aren’t trained in CPR, you make the emergency call. Depression is not sadness, it’s not the blues. It’s not demons in your brain. Depression is hopelessness, despair, pain. It is an illness. It is treatable, as are all of the other mental illnesses that we’re all too afraid of to even mention. Things like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the so-called serious mental illnesses, as if being housebound for years due to anxiety isn’t serious.
Someone who is suicidal doesn’t need a friend to talk to. Someone who is suicidal needs professional care. Good luck getting it in America. Currently, it would take an additional 2,800 psychiatrists to eliminate all of the health provider shortage areas in the United States. In shortage areas, there at least 30,000 people per psychiatrist. That means that every psychiatrist in those areas has a potential 7,500 patients, based on 25% of our population being affected by mental illness.
Even in areas rich with psychiatric resources, getting treatment can be impossible. Lousy insurance payment policies lead many professionals to demanding upfront billing. Not too long ago, we paid $500 for an initial psychiatric consult out-of-pocket. Someone on Medicaid couldn’t possibly afford such a luxury. My own therapist trusts only one insurance provider to pay her promptly. Others demand to review her patient records before payment. Yes, those records. The ones protected by doctor patient privilege.
In the United States, when you have a mental break and need inpatient care, you’re lucky if you can get a bed. We don’t have enough. Period. People linger in the ER for days, waiting for an admission that they need but may never receive.
Numerous times, I’ve heard neurotypicals tell me they can’t understand how anyone would be suicidal, especially someone as successful and well-loved as Robin Williams. But we don’t understand why people get cancer, either, and yet we take it seriously. We treat it as a disease that can kill people we love.
So forgive my cynicism over all the calls for conversation. We with mental disorders can talk until our tongues fall out of our mouths. None of it will make any difference if no one is listening.
There are numerous resources offering where you can learn what to do when someone you know is suicidal. These are from the Mayo Clinic website.