Last week, Robin Williams committed suicide after struggling with depression and substance abuse for decades. And for now, the news stories speak of his death, bringing suicide to the media forefront. A news anchor apologizes for calling his suicide “cowardly,” while others publish articles combatting the argument that suicide is selfish. For anyone scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed, or flipping through a newspaper, the topics of suicide and depression are unavoidable.
But, I fear, similarly to the drug-overdose-induced death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this year — which brought issues of both addiction and the heroin resurgence to the surface of popular culture — these discussions will fade away within the week.
Why these issues are not constantly in dialogue in our country, I cannot understand. It is estimated that 10% of Americans struggle with depression. A similar percentage of people in the United States are estimated as being addicted to alcohol and drugs. There is certainly a great deal of overlap between these two categories, whose prevalence — I would venture to guess — is already grossly underestimated.
Even if those numbers are correct, 10% is still a vast portion of the population. Somewhere near 30,000 people die of suicide in the United States each year. That is twice as many as die of homicide, and twice as many as die of HIV/AIDS. And yet, dialogue around suicide, and even depression, is underwhelming and scarce – except in the week following a celebrity case.
Mental health remains a taboo topic in the U.S., and people who struggle still fear the stigmatization that accompanies mental illnesses like depression and addiction. When someone commits suicide, the person is deemed crazy and selfish. Yet there is often a lack of perspective on what could lead a person to feel so utterly hopeless and alone that they would take their own lives.
Similarly, there is a cultural attitude that those with addiction and clinical depression need to “toughen up” or just “be happy.” People with depression are perceived as being whiney and dramatic, while addicts are seen as reckless and self-indulgent. For those who have not suffered, it is difficult to understand the all-consuming nature of these diseases. Denial is prevalent in a culture that, overall, does not sympathize with these illnesses. Even those who are aware of their conditions, and want to get better, have long roads ahead.
The mental health field in the United States is flawed. Public mental health facilities and services are underfunded by the government. There are not enough psychologists in schools. It is challenging for people without much money to find quality mental health care in a field where leading providers charge upward of $100 per hour and oftentimes do not accept insurance. Even those who do accept insurance can be difficult to locate or schedule appointments with. The combination of a weak mental health system with a cultural stigmatization of mental illness leaves people who suffer incredibly vulnerable.
Mental illnesses, like depression and addiction, have progressively become better understood clinically as real diseases, rather than character flaws or signs of weakness. Yet, there is still a sense of shame and secrecy that surrounds these illnesses.
I can speak on this shame from personal experience. Both sides of my family have several generations with a prevalence of depression and addiction. Both of these genetic diseases were passed on to me.
For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from depression. Growing up I went to a therapist as a relatively young child, and went on antidepressants, and in 7th grade attempted to overdose on that same medication, all of which I also kept a secret from my friends. In 9th grade I was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning for the first time. By the time I graduated college, I had been hospitalized three more times for alcohol and drug-related overdoses, and should have been on several other occasions. I had completed inpatient and outpatient rehab programs, and still I continued to drink, use drugs and struggle with depression.
Through all of these events, I was embarrassed and in denial. I kept convincing myself that I would eventually gain control of alcohol intake and my impulsive and erratic behaviors when I was intoxicated. After years of trying, this never happened. After an especially traumatic blackout spell in which I ran into oncoming traffic in New York, I stopped drinking because – if not – I knew I was eventually going to kill myself. Even since becoming sober, I have had to confront the underlying depression that remained.
Through these struggles I often felt alone, and this is not surprising: depression and addiction are diseases that make you feel isolated and blind you to the ways that you are bringing this isolation upon yourself.
I did not know that many people were suffering, especially my age, even in my own circles. Like me, they were probably ashamed and embarrassed and keeping their stories to themselves.
I hope that even after news of Robin Williams’ death fades from the media, suicide and mental illness remain topics of conversation for people across the United States. If we really want to respond Robin Williams’ death in a way that makes a difference, then we must constantly increase efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness in the United States and help those suffering understand they are not alone.