This post is about Robin Williams, but it’s not just about Robin Williams.
In the hours after the news came that one of the country’s favorite and most talented performers had taken his own life, something really powerful and amazing happened. Social media and the rest of the Internet overflowed with conversations about mental health. One of the best things that I saw was a picture of Mr. Williams with the statement, “The funniest man in the world couldn’t just think positive and be healed. Support those struggling with depression and other mental health issues. It takes lives.”
So, this post isn’t just about Robin Williams. This post is also about me. It’s about the 22 or more military Veterans per day who escape their pain in the only way that they know how. It’s about the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds in America – with the rate of suicide attempts and completions among LGBT youth being even higher.
This post is about all of us. It’s about those who struggle with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, thyroid disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (from combat, rape, abuse, or anything else that causes trauma), eating disorders… and any mental illness that is not easily diagnosed or treated.
This post is about the everyday heroes of the mental health community: the therapists, the nurses (like my wonderful sister, Tracy) who work in the halls of psychiatric hospitals, the clergy who dare to give their time and energies to work on the spiritual wellness of those who suffer (like my amazing friend and former pastor, Charles), and the caregivers who suffer alongside us and make sure our medicines, appointments and every day well-being are provided for (like my inimitable wife, Christina.)
But, this post is also about those on the sidelines of this fight, those who sit in the crowd, the ones who don’t understand – either because they don’t know enough or because they simply don’t want to. In fact, this post is mostly about those people, because those people (these people) need to “get their head in the game” and realize that this is something that affects every single one of us.
I’ve seen a lot of posts on this on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Some of them say things like, “Depression isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of someone who has been strong for too long.”
On the other side, I’ve seen and heard a lot of comments decrying suicide as “the coward’s way out.” From some very well-meaning Christians, I’ve heard sentiments like, “True happiness comes from a relationship with God” or “Depression is a demonic attack” or “Just pray, and God will heal your depression.”
Here are some observations from someone who has worked in the medical community, and who has suffered for a long time with depression: depression is not about being weak or strong. Depression isn’t a sign of a lack of faith. Depression isn’t a sign of spiritual attack. Depression is an illness. It is an illness that most people will suffer at sometime in their lives. It is an illness that some people will suffer for their entire lives.
Depression is not just feeling sad. Depression is not about a normal response to distressing life events. Depression is not something that you can cure by just “cheering up” or “thinking positive”. Depression cannot be prayed away. (If it could be prayed away, I would have stopped being depressed years ago.)
Depression is not simple. It can either be the primary illness or just a symptom of another, more insidious illness.
There is no magic cure. Counseling helps some people, but not all. Medications help some people, but not all, and the process of finding an appropriate anti-depressant or mood stabilizer can be long and frustrating.
Depression effects both men and women, young and old, and is no respecter of ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic class. Robin Williams was a wealthy, successful, 63-year-old man. The suicide that I responded to in 2008 was a 20-year-old Soldier, of minimal means. I lost a friend in 2006 who was a 24-year-old single mother.
The very real stigma that surrounds mental illness only complicates this, and the stigma takes many different forms.
There are those who are actively hostile towards mental illness, refusing to acknowledge it as “real” and telling those who suffer to simply “suck it up.”
There are those who try and explain mental illness as something other than it is, thus devaluing the experience of the mentally ill.
There are the religious, who see mental illness as a lack of faith or as a “test” from God.
There are those who simply don’t understand mental illness, and in their lack of understanding, simply try to ignore it.
All of those stigmas are real, and all of them hurt.
It’s time to get off the sidelines, out of the stands and onto the field. Every day, someone that you know or come into contact with is literally fighting for their life against these illnesses. Every day your friend, co-worker, brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother, grandparent, acquaintance, stranger – all these people are struggling to hold on, to keep the darkness at bay, to escape from the shroud that envelops every single thing that they do.
It’s an oppressive, crushing weight, and every day that you decide to remain neutral in the fight for more understanding and compassion for the mentally ill, you force us to bear that weight alone.
Your actions, your words, your casual remarks and your Facebook posts, they can either make that weight heavier or lighter for the people in your life that struggle with these illnesses.
Will you help them or hurt them? There is no other choice.
To Robin Williams and his family, and to the thousands upon thousands of others who have suffered because of a lost battle with depression: my thoughts, my prayers, and my everlasting support are with you.
To those who still struggle, you are not alone. The outpouring of love and support for Robin Williams shows that everyone has someone who will miss them when they are gone, and who want to love them while they are here. Give us the chance to love you now.
To those who don’t want to be involved, the time is now. Don’t let one more person go through the pain and the awful loneliness of suicidal thoughts and intentions, without reaching out a hand of love, compassion and friendship.
The number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The Veteran’s Crisis Hotline is the same number, and can be found on the web HERE.
There is hope and peace for you. Please reach out.
Grace and Peace to you all,
Michael Brian Woywood