Understanding Mental Illnesses, Suicide

In the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic death, and in preparation for International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day (November 22), I have been engaged in a number of personal and professional discussions regarding the nature of suicide and the view some have that this is a “selfish” act. In an effort to honor the lives of those who completed suicide, and the families left to struggle with the lifelong impact of such a painful loss, I want to take this opportunity to describe what my work as a mental health counselor has led me to believe about suicide including the events leading to such a final act.

I suspect many of you at one point or another have already read suicide prevention articles or pamphlets, or sat in on presentations regarding the “warning signs” of suicide.  Robin Williams certainly fits the national profile of one most likely to complete a suicide-white, middle-aged, male, and a history of mental illness.  I believe it is of particular importance to note the “middle-aged” part of this description.

Beginning around our mid to late 40s, we begin to shift gears in terms of our view of life and our role in it. By this time in our lives, we have experienced a number of different losses.  Some are physical, such as the death of a parent, friend or sibling, and some more at a psychological level-loss of our youth, loss of physical agility, loss of a marriage or job, loss of financial security.  By this time in our lives we recognize that lots of painful things happen outside of our control, no matter what we do to attempt to avoid them.  And, with each loss, we grieve.  Sometimes a little.  Sometimes a lot.  These grieving processes can begin to add up over time causing a swell of fear in an individual, a fear for some that becomes so intense, it triggers mental illness.

Mental illness refers to a disorder of the brain.  Some kind of connection within that organ is not working properly causing our ability to think and feel to function improperly. Therefore, within the context of mental illness, individuals can begin to feel that the compiling pain of loss in their lives is insurmountable.  It becomes too frightening to even consider being hopeful about anything.  They fear investing their emotions into one more idea, person or even a higher power, is too much of a risk.  That’s what mental illness does.  It robs us of our ability to see opportunity or to even recognize our strengths.  We are unable to tap into the rational, logical thinking parts of our brain because the illness has broken down the communication system in our head between emotions and facts.  Which leads me to whether or not suicide is truly “selfish”.

Over the course of my 10+ years as a mental health therapist, I have worked with a large number of men, women, and children who have contemplated suicide, some more seriously than others, but thought of killing themselves as an option out of their pain, nonetheless.  They describe a fear of living so intense that it is difficult to feel their physical bodies, see light, or feel a connection to anything.  Their brain is sending them the message that they are out of options.  At the most primal place in the brain, they are receiving what they feel is already a death sentence…that they are alone, highly vulnerable to any prey, and will live in darkness for the duration of their lives. They are rendered blind to any possibility life has to offer, mostly figuratively and sometimes literally.  A very dear friend of mine summed it up best for me  when she described it as a complete loss of imagination.

Loss of imagination.  Loss of creativity.  Loss of self.  Without self.  Self-“less” rather than “selfish”.  A disorder of the brain limits our ability to create because the brain is working inefficiently.  Much like the cardiac patient who has a heart pumping blood to the body at inappropriate levels, the psychiatric patient has a brain struggling to “pump” good ideas for living to the rest of the body.  Again, this is the result of a malfunctioning brain, not a conscience decision.  Rarely do I ever hear someone make the comment that dying of a heart attack is a selfish event.  I submit that dying by suicide should be given the same consideration.

That is not to say we ought not bear the responsibility of managing our mental illness once diagnosed.  If we get the news that our mental illness can lead to death if untreated (just like some physical illnesses, mind you, then it is our responsibility to do what we can to avoid that outcome.  Of course, how many of us know of someone not managing their physical illness as they have been instructed to do by their physicians?  It is not fair that we get sick, but sometimes we do.  For the sake of our families and friends, if not ourselves, we would do well to learn as much as we can about the illness and manage it accordingly.  But as we know, even our best efforts don’t always lead to long lives.  People still die of cancer, heart attacks, and the like, even when their doctors’ orders are followed.  We don’t know what Robin Williams really understood about his illness.  We don’t know what patterns he recognized or what his doctors ordered in the way of treatment.  We don’t know how compliant he was in terms of managing his illness.  It appears now he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s just days before he killed himself.  So, what was his disordered brain able to make of that within the context of the other issues he faced? And yet, we judge.

As difficult as it is to lose so tragically an individual as gifted as Robin Williams, his death has the potential to be a valuable, life giving event if we let it.  I believe the most meaningful thing we can do to honor Mr. Williams and the countless others we have lost to suicide is to lift up their lives through a more compassionate discussion of what mental illness really is and is not…that it is not a moral deficiency, it is not a character flaw or a sign that someone is not strong enough, religious enough, motivated enough.  If we can continue to remove the stigma of mental illness from our society, then we essentially give our blessing to the very strong, wonderful people who want to get help for their brains.  Then, just maybe, the worst thing to happen to the Williams’ family could turn out to be the best thing to happen to another family because their child, sibling or parent, who once considered suicide, is still alive. And laughing.  Peace be with you and your family Robin Williams. And peace be with those in this community impacted by suicide loss.


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