I am not one to get starstruck; I have met a few over the years. Yes, I had my favorites: Mr. Rogers, Bernadette Peters, Robin Williams, among others. Obviously you can sense my eclectic taste, but all of them represented to me very real, very flawed, but very good people. When asked once why I liked Robin Williams so much in college my quick answer was always “He gives hopes of success to all short, fat, hairy guys out there.” It has taken me some time to process the suicide of Robin Williams and how I feel about it. I know in many ways it does not matter what I feel; I am not in his life and I will continue to move on with my life.
But it is hard not to think of the impact of this and its impact on my life. You see, one of the greatest challenges that I have like Robin Williams being the short, fat, hairy guy, is that I struggle with depression. Thankfully, it is not to the extremes that many suffer, but the fact that it impacts my life makes me think a lot about it and other issues of mental health.
While serving in Iowa, I was introduced to NAMI (www.nami.org). This is a great group and through them I have learned a great deal. While I spent a lot of time in seminary learning about mental illness and counseling, one thing that we did not talk about was advocacy and awareness. Being in the Midwest, something that made matters worse was the stigma that people would often place on mental illness.
This meant that a lot of people would not seek out help. In fact for me, even after years of schooling in psychology and counseling I had an ingrained fear of what might happen if this were found out. But the reality was I only hurt myself by not seeking help, and far more people struggle with depression and other mental illness than we even know.
Yes, it is easy to see the people at the extremes. But they only represent a small fraction of people. But when it comes to receiving fair and appropriate medical care, mental illness lags far behind. I could spout the statistics, but you could go to thewww.NAMI.org for that. I will be honest and blunt here: What really is sad about Robin Williams’ suicide is that we are asking why.
While I think this might be a compassionate response -- we have known the link between depression and suicide for decades and have studied it -- but to be honest, we have not devoted the resources and research to really come to understand it and what goes on within someone to feel as if this were the only answer. Personally, I feel that the question of why is wrong because we should know more, but because of stigmas and priorities we have yet to come up with an answer that might help us to find a cure to this illness.
To be honest, there is no good explanation for why Robin or anyone takes his or her own life. There are the things we can point to like the sense of isolation or an incident, but there is often much more. My heart aches for Robin and his family, this is a cruel way to die, but here is my next controversial thing: I doubt he could have done anything about it. Like cancer, and suicide survivor’s recall, the sense becomes so overwhelming there is nothing you could do to stop it from happening. As a Church we respond with prayers, but we also have to respond with learning, understanding, and calling for more research and understanding. We need to stop treating mental illness as an issue of self control and begin to treat it the same way we treat cancer and other like illnesses. Think of what a difference that would make in our world!
If you would like to know more about mental illness or need to find support in our community, I would recommend starting with our local NAMI chapterwww.namisantaclara.org.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen