Robin Williams & the Stigma of Mental Illness

Yesterday was a sad day in the world of entertainment. The suicide death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams hit Twitter, and later, TVs, newspapers, and workplace break-rooms as a shocking reminder that, though smiling on the outside, many of those close to us deal with much darker demons on the inside.

And, while most on social media and the blogosphere expressed grief and shared their favorite moments of the entertainer’s illustrious career, of course, there were a few that felt the need to criticize; to question the end-motives of a man who battled depression and addiction much of his life; to prove, yet again, that many people just don’t understand mental illness.

To be fair, it’s not all their fault. Growing up, thanks to television and movies, I thought of mental health patients as either despondent serial killers with uncontrollable mommy obsessions, ala Norman Bates, or ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, straight-jacket wearing, mumbling, drooling fools.

Until I become one myself.

While I won’t do them the solid of linking to their uneducated ramblings of how “selfish” Williams’ final act was, or how he had so much money, he should’ve “just gotten over it”, and I won’t sit here and give you all a sob story about how hard it is to live with mental illness (or, multiple mental illnesses, because, SURPRISE!, many of us don’t deal with just one), I will say this, emphatically:

If you don’t know what you’re talking about….just, don’t.

It’s quite simple, really: those who do know what it is like to be in a certain predicament absolutely, 100%, do not want to hear from those who don’t.

Not only do you come off looking stupid to those of us “in the know”, but, frankly, it can be dangerous. Especially in instances such as this.

Every year, hundreds of  thousands in the US succumb to mental disease or addiction; some by suicide, some from overdoses or the secondary diseases caused by long-term use of drugs and alcohol. While many of these people did, at some point, reach out for help– countless others simply never will. How many times have you heard, “we never saw it coming” or “she seemed so happy” or “we didn’t know there was a problem” from family & friends following the sudden death of a loved one? Unfortunately, many of these cases weren’t just “overlooked”– these people were genuinely kept in the dark, either because of the shame or guilt the sufferer felt, or because of their worry of what others would think if they told.

That fear or shame a person with a mental illness experiences is magnified in public events such as the passing of Robin Williams. And, instead of using this tragedy to educate possible sufferers of the need to reach out for help, many people, again, wholly uneducated on the subject, turn to the Interwebs and 24-hour news outlets to promote their own ignorance or agenda.

The stigma of mental illness in this country needs to end. It’s not your fault. You are not alone. And, most importantly, there is hope. Many of us with mental diseases such as depression and anxiety or drug/alcohol addiction do lead healthy, productive lives. You can, too….but you can’t do it by yourself.

And, if you’re lucky enough not to be within the group of Americans that suffer with often-debilitating mental illness, do us all a favor– keep your opinions to yourself.

If you, or someone you know, has issues with depression, anxiety, addiction, or any other mental issue, in the Chicago area you can use the numbers below to call for professional help.




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