Robin Williams’ death ought to put two things front and center for us. With all the talk in the media aboutending the stigma of mental illness, it is time for us to get real about it.
First of all, we need to be clear that first and foremost, the human brain is an organ of the body, and is as subject to physical ailment as any other organ. It may actually be more so because the brain is such a complex network of neurons and chemicals that control every aspect of our lives. Underlying what we call mental or behavioral illness is the very physical function or dysfunction of this vast network. Those of us with a functional disorder in our brains can no more “snap out of it” than someone with diabetes can do so without a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.
Second, those of us suffering from mental illness are everywhere doing just about anything. We are your neighbors, your teachers, the guy who plows your street in the winter, even, as in my case, your priest or pastor. Creativity, imagination and, yes, humor are not only possible for people suffering from either unipolar or bipolar depression, they are often enhanced by it. Yet these things, like Williams’ comic genius, come at a great cost: a daily struggle to keep ahead of the negative, hopeless messages that are firing off in our brains. Most of us do this fairly successfully most of the time. But it is inevitable that from time to time the hopelessness gets ahead of us.
So many people needlessly suffer because they do not have the tools to cope. If you are suffering from unrelenting depression, talk to your doctor about it. If you know someone who suffers from mental illness, let your compassion be known and help the person to talk about it openly as much as they are comfortable. We all have to do our part to humanize these diseases of the brain. If we do not, the body count will continue to rise.
One last thing: Was it me or did the revelation that Robin had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease give us an excuse to stop thinking and talking about this? It is as if we said, "Oh, of course, that's why he did it. That we can understand." Interestingly enough, Parkinson's itself is a brain disease, but because it has physical manifestations we put it in a different category. Yet, as I understand it, Parkinson's is really both a physical and a mental illness. Which brings us back around to the bottom line. This artificial divide between physical and mental illness has got to go. It is extraordinarily unhelpful, and even dangerous.