By Kathi Bliss
It is extremely uncommon for me to get worked up over celebrity deaths. Truth told, I get a little bit frustrated with the “gossip media” at times, because they seem to simply forget that celebrities are normal people who happen to have high-profile jobs.
However, the death this week of actor and comedian Robin Williams has me rattled. I think it would have been shocking if he had died from natural causes, or even in an accident. But the fact that someone who many believe to be one of the greatest comic talents of a generation took his own life… That fact has me reeling – and based on the chatter I’ve seen on social media and heard on mainstream nightly news coverage, I’m not the only one.
One friend of mine said that losing Robin Williams was, to her, somewhat like losing a favorite uncle. I can relate to that. I have many memories, as early as when I was in elementary school, of watching “Mork and Mindy” with my grandparents. My grandmother and I watched “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society” over and over, and I have no fewer than half a dozen Robin Williams titles in my personal DVD collection right now, today. What I’ve noticed, with few exceptions, is that Williams seemed to choose characters that made us laugh, made us cry, and taught us a lesson – all at once.
Which is why I think that through his death, he’s given us one final teachable moment… on final gift, if you will.
For far too long, there has been a stigma attached to depression, a stigma attached to suicide. Too often, we don’t talk about depression until it’s too late. Those who suffer from this often-debilitating mental illness don’t come forward for help, for fear of being stigmatized. They don’t reach out, because the nature of the disease is to withdraw; we don’t reach out to those suffering from depression because we believe “they just want to be alone, and they will snap out of it.”
Too often, they DON’T snap out of it. Too often, the disease is too crushing, the mental pain too overwhelming, and too often, those who suffer from severe depression only see one way to make the pain stop.
There are many forms of physical disease that are called “silent killers.” I firmly believe that mental illness should be added to that list. Perhaps, the loss of a beloved actor and comedian will finally allow us to break that silence, and start talking about depression and other mental illnesses without judgment, and instead with compassion.
In 2011, the Centers for Disease Controlnoted 39,518 people died by their own hand – the 10th leading killer of Americans. Suicide claimed a life every 13.3 minutes. That statistic suggests to me that most, if not all of us, have been touched in some personal, absolute way by a suicide. Unfortunately, those suicides are not performed by internationally-renowned celebrities. They are average, everyday people whose troubled, diseased minds convinced them there was only one choice left.
And too often, once it’s said and done, we call them “selfish.” We call them “weak,” and we berate them for not thinking about the people they left behind. One thing we rarely do is call them what they really are: “Ill.”
I’ve seen dozens of people say on social media that we shouldn’t be talking about Robin Williams’s suicide, and instead should be talking about the thousands of “normal” people – soldiers suffering Post-Traumatic Stress, accident victims with traumatic brain injury, teens who have put up with bullying for as long as they can stand – who choose to make a final, fatal decision every year. And I agree that’s true. We SHOULD be talking about that. We should be screaming about it from the rooftops. We should be encouraging each other to stop putting our own moral judgments on other people’s life choices, and talking about how we can stop mental illness from claiming the lives of our friends, our family members and our kids.
And maybe, just maybe it took the death of someone like Robin Williams to open up the national conversation that so many people need desperately for us to have.
I am grateful for the lessons, the laughter and the memories that came from more than four decades of Robin Williams performances. It is my honest prayer that he finally found the peace and joy he brought to so many…