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In his final act, Robin Williams teaches us to understand - not judge - suicide

Robin Williams file photograph
Robin Williams file photographAP

For as long as I can remember, the issue of suicide was labeled as "selfish", "cowardly", and "sinful" and for most of my adult life I bought into those notions. Of course it is none of those things and our culture is only beginning to awaken to the deep and profound issues that cause the human mind to descend into the horribly torturous depths of depression, loneliness, helplessness, and sadness that make up mental disorders. The darkness that results is only completely understood by those who study it and, sometimes, by those who are diagnosed with it.

Human emotions run deep when someone we know – or know of - commits suicide. Firstly, and most importantly, it’s absolutely critical that we realize that human emotions – by themselves – are benign and neither “right” or “wrong”. It’s what we choose to do with our emotions that determine “rightness” or “wrongness”. If we react with judgment, accusation and condemnation we are allowing our emotions to drive us down a path that is not only incorrect, but inhumane. So while a million different emotions, opinions, thoughts and questions may run through our minds with regards to why anyone would commit suicide we must reject notions that suggest the person was weak, selfish, cowardly or sinful because, ultimately, that’s not true.

Secondly, we all must begin to come to grips with the fact that mental illness is a real disease and unless we’ve studied it or known someone who suffers from it, we understand very little about it. I include myself in this category – I’ve only known about the intricacies of this disease because I have friends who have dealt with it. It’s much more complicated than most of us can imagine and it is beyond the victim's control.

Thirdly, being clinically depressed is not a choice and cannot be remedied by making a decision. In my book and speeches I often refer to the pursuit of happiness as being (in part) reliant upon making decisions to be happy. This is possible for the majority of people in our society, however it is quite impossible for those who suffer from depression and other forms of mental illness. They are literally unable to make such decisions and cannot simply “snap out of it” as many in my generation have demanded they do. There are chemical imbalances in the brain that prevent this ability and although great progress has been made, only treatments exist. There are no cures.

I never met Robin Williams personally although as do millions of people around the world this week feel, I feel as if I knew a part of him through his films, comedy routines and interviews. Giving ourselves permission to cry for devastating loses best begins the healing process. We should hold on tightly to the pain and, while we weep, let the tears percolate the grief out of our system. There is an inevitable emptiness that is evident when something like this happens. The emptiness has very little to do with knowing the private life and personality of Robin Williams, but has everything to do with the fear that we may know people in our lives who suffer from some form of mental illness and depression. And so, in a unique way and because of his celebrity, Robin Williams’ curtain call in this life helps shine a bit more light on the terribly dark and frightening world of mental illness and will, hopefully, cause more awareness and understanding.