The last time I saw her –when we were both 17– I didn’t know much about suicide.
But since then, I’ve seen it happen again and again.
When I learned of Robin Williams’ suicide, my heart broke. I felt sick for the precious, talented, tormented actor and his family. I was still on a high from enjoying lunch when I heard the tragic news, so of course thought of my friend. I realized how she likely has strong feelings as many people are discussing suicide prevention, depression, and other illnesses that carry an unwanted and unhelpful stigma.
Right after I officially selected which college I would attend, I did what most kids do, and read up on the various goings-on at the place that would soon be both my home and school. It turned out one of the students was in Dead Poet’s Society – cool! How fun to go to a school with a real actor! Of course, Robin Williams stars in said movie, and said movie includes a suicide. While also reading about my new school, I learned a student had recently committed suicide. Nearly a year later, I heard her name repeated again and again by the brothers and sisters of the co-ed literary society that I pledged, since she had been a member.
My sophomore year in college, I participated in a group independent study project. Our topic was suicide. Of course, people’s reactions to this were shock: was I simply morbidly curious? (To be fair, I had just completed a course on cemeteries, so I can understand some of the quizzical looks.) The reactions I received highlighted exactly why suicidology is so important. People were very uncomfortable when I explained what I was studying. I learned a tremendous amount about prevention, intervention, and postvention. (Most people don’t “get” postvention: the family deserves plenty of support after any death, but particularly as suicide carries such a stigma.)
That year I presented at the American Association of Suicidology’s convention. (I bet you didn’t know such a group exists. And yet, The American Cancer Society, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and National Parkison Foundation all sound very familiar and normal, as do other organizations supporting various illnesses.) It was my very first professional scientific convention.
Of course, learning about suicide from an academic perspective is much different than having any personal experience with it. But, that came, too.
You know that “perfect” girl who is bubbly, intelligent and popular? The one who “has it all?” Well, apparently, she didn’t, as I learned ten years after we graduated from college. I also recently learned of another classmate’s death. Although I cannot confirm it was a suicide, the obit has those non-confirming terms that are sadly trying to mask stigma.
(I understand that cancer used to carry a similar stigma: but these days it is an “acceptable” label. Perhaps suicide will soon also become something seen as a tragic illness rather than “selfish” or “shameful?” And then there are inappropriate jokes, making light of the notion of a dramatic girl harming herself for attention.)
Tonight my mind is half stuck on what an amazing person Robin Williams was – and how that loss is so deep. And it is half stuck on anger that getting successful treatment is so difficult for things deemed “mental” in nature.
I’m furious that while I had a bout of post-partum depression, the counselor seemed disinterested when I answered “no,” to “Do you want to kill yourself.” I was no longer worth his time, but what if I were lying? He explained that I was therefore “fine.” And, he further told me that the stress I was exhibiting indicated that I’m “not cut out to be a stay-at-home mother.”
And I hate that the impetus is always on the suffering person to “get help.” It is difficult to jump through hoops to get medical attention for mental illness. It is much easier to be seen for a cut lip or strep throat. But mental health services involves a series of screening phone calls. The people most in need of help are the least likely to obtain it. They will not be motivated enough to pick up the phone! They cannot ask for help from family or friends because they do not want to be a burden. It takes too much effort to find assistance, and it doesn’t seem worth it. This is part of the whole profile of depression – it is like asking someone with a broken foot to “just get up and run a marathon, dammit, because then your foot will heal!” You cannot just snap out of it, and — because of your symptoms — it is difficult to reach out for help.
I’m angry when I see people call suicide “selfish” or if they wonder why people “just” don’t go get help. It truly isn’t that simple. People cannot “will” away depression. And the depression itself creates a barrier to finding possible help.
But even people who have access to the best medical care won’t necessarily be cured of depression. That’s the rub. Mental illness is an illness. Brain chemistry is very complex. (And, I should know: I have a Masters of Medicine in Neuroscience. And… one of my favorite subjects was neuropharmacology. This stuff is interesting from a research perspective but devastatingly complex from a clinical perspective. There is so much to learn, and a great margin of error.)
People who commit suicide suffered from an illness.
That illness is not easily cured, especially not given the barriers to care and stigma that surrounds suicide.
If someone commits suicide, they are not a failure. They had an illness that turned out to be fatal. Perhaps they did seek medical treatment, but perhaps the treatment didn’t work. Do we blame people with malignant cancer if they die for not fighting hard enough?
It is “nice” that people are at least thinking about the effects of suicide because of Robin Williams. But I hope that they will really stop and think about it rather than just brushing it off as some sort of selfish act.