On Robin Williams and Mental Illness in America
The death of Robin Williams by suicide seems to be the last straw in terms of sad things happening in the world right now. The shooting death of Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager by police in Ferguson, Missouri, the deteriorating situation and thousands of people dead in Gaza and the Ukraine, it seems that no matter where we turn we are faced by a new unbearable tragedy. Unbearable because they seem so at odds with how things should be. How could someone like Robin Williams, who has gone through so much and has brought joy to so many, still find life not worth living? How could the men and women of our police force, who are supposed to protect us and make us feel safe, fill us with so much fear and rage? How is it that our government can condemn the killing of civilians and yet turn around and provide more ammunition to continue with said killings?
It is gut-wrenching and sad and yet all too familiar. It is the sensation that we are at odds with ourselves, that how things appear on the surface lie contrary to what lies beneath, it is the feeling of insanity, it is the grim specter of mental illness that seems to be pervading this country, and it is tearing us apart. While I can’t speak to what Robin Williams was going through I can speak on a similar situation in that my uncle, who also was a commercially successful artist whose work was celebrated by millions of people, found his internal demons too great and took his own life just shy of his 70th birthday. He also battled with alcoholism and depression and despite being an Emmy award winning director who had a family that loved him very much, he wasn’t able to love himself and he took himself away from us.
How often does this story have to repeat itself? What would happen if we as a country came to terms with the fact that we have a mental illness? That the way we feel and the way we act are are in contradiction with one another? Why can’t we talk about the fact that despite how far we have come, racism is very much a real issue in this country and needs to be addressed? How many more Trayvon Martins and Mike Browns have to die before we can talk about this? Why do we have to pretend that we are a country whose highest value is “liberty” when we have the highest incarceration rate in the world? How many more people have to die in Gaza or Iraq before we stop pretending to be a nation of peace? When can we just admit that we are engaging in geopolitical maneuvering for power and control in the Middle East?
Only when we can openly talk and be honest about what we are going through can we begin to heal the wounds of our collective mental illness. Robin Williams it seems, did not feel able to talk honestly about what he was going through, nor did my uncle. In our culture it is seen as “unmanly” to seek out help. But we have to seek help, we have to put an end to this. Too many people are getting hurt these days. We have to talk about these things and we have to heal ourselves or we will continue to lose people that we love. This doesn’t have to be the world we live in. We know that we can do better than this. Let’s talk, with honesty and compassion. Let’s talk.