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Owning the mental health debate

Robin Williams attending the CW, CBS And Showtime 2013 Summer TCA Party on July 29, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

In the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, millions have taken to social media to express their grief. Among the fond memories and tributes to his talent have been discussions about what one famous man’s suicide means in the larger mental health debate in this country.

But often the discussion turned angry. People on Facebook and blogs have clashed over whether Robin’s death was a cognitive choice or pre-ordained by a dark disease that robbed him of all control. Whether suicide is an act of madness or selfishness, bravery or cowardice. And how the media should cover celebrity suicides and overdoses to avoid encouraging copycats, especially by the young and impressionable. Though I have my opinions, I don’t pretend to know all the answers.

But one thing I do know for sure: the debate cannot be owned only by those who suffer from depression.

Many of those commenting in Facebook threads and on Twitter seem indignant that anyone who hasn’t gone through the depths of major depression would voice an opinion on Williams’ death. Often they are insulting and dismissive of the opinions of those who had never been driven to consider suicide. It’s as if they are saying that only someone who's been diagnosed with a Serious Mental Illness can ever understand depression or try to.

But no one can own the mental health debate. Just as the gun rights debate cannot be owned by gun owners or victims of gun violence, the issue of drunk driving cannot be owned by alcoholics, and matters of war and national defense cannot be owned by military veterans.

To truly make headway on treating mental illness, we need as many contrasting voices as possible in the discussion. We need mental health practitioners, patients, parents and relatives, innocent victims, political leaders, educators, the news and entertainment media, and frankly anyone else who wants to engage on the topic. Disinviting anyone without a mental illness diagnosis from the discussion would be like disinviting the healthy from the debate on healthcare reform.

I know I cannot fully comprehend the twisted thought processes of a severely depressed individual like Robin Williams, even though I have lived with family members who have battled depression and bipolar disorder. But I have lived long enough and gone through enough to understand the lonely despair and helplessness that Robin must have been grappling with in those final hours.

Mental illness and suicide have touched most adults in some form or another, be it a family member, friend, coworker, or someone else whose life touched theirs. The "It Gets Better" campaign has helped shed a light on depression, alienation and suicide among young people and gays. And with the recent uptick in military suicides and now a beloved comedian, it truly touches us all. We all have a stake in the matter.

I don’t pretend to know how the next Robin Williams can be saved. But I do know that open discussion and acceptance of all views will get us there quicker and better.

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