a robin williams story.
i can’t remember how old i was, but i remember being in my parents’ room, sitting on their bed with a plate full of snacks. the moment i started watching the movie, i knew that it had been made just for me. and i’ve always been a little bit selfish when it comes to stumbling across a favorite movie, quote, or book- of holding on to the stories they contain like treasure- trying to keep all the magic they consist of just for myself. so i can remember my elementary school self not wanting anyone else to know about “Patch Adams.” i was going to be him, i remember thinking. i was going to be person who brought light to the lives of others, who was attentive to other people’s suffering, and who knew what to do to help make it better. i can distinctly remember not wanting anyone to know about Patch Adams because i thought the world would only need one of him, and i wanted it to be me. i’ve grown up since then. and i’ve learned that having the tiniest impact on the world is about focusing less on one’s ego and more on one’s understanding of the challenges, solutions, and contributors to a problem. but that movie became the spark that ignited my dream to go to college to become a doctor.
like many of you, i have my own Robin William’s story.
as you may know, i held tight to the dream of becoming a Patch Adams kind of doctor, until my junior year of college. and as you may also know, i chose to become a social worker instead. this choice has afforded me the opportunity to work with some of the most remarkable and resilient people i could have ever hoped to meet. and so in the last few years, i have spent time talking with people who are homeless, people who have a severe and persistent mental illness, people who have been diagnosed with other mental illnesses, people who have endured traumatic life experiences, and people who are struggling to make it through the day. i’ve had the opportunity to get to know people whose lives have been very different from Robin William’s, but perhaps similar in their experience of depression and suicidal ideation.
and in the days, weeks, and month following the initial shock over Robin William’s death, i’ve noticed that the conversations about suicide, depression, stigma, treatment, and mental illness have waned. but it has left me thinking about the friends, family members, consumers, Veterans, and people i’ve come to know who have struggled with depression, addiction, other mental health challenges, or thoughts and plans of suicide. i’ve never personally experienced depression, but i know that it can feel a lot like darkness, like an unexpected blow to the stomach, or like a heavy feeling of dread that you just can’t seem to shake. i know that depression can mean not feeling anything at all, or being numb to everything you are feeling all at once. it can mean feeling withdrawn or withdrawing yourself from the world. and i know that depression can feel a lot like a sinking hole that you cannot climb out of.
what i know is that suicide is often a symptom of major depressive disorder- a mental illness caused by a number of biological and environmental factors. what i know is that over 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness (including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders). and for people who experience chronic and recurrent symptoms of major depression or other mental illnesses, suicide or thoughts of suicide may come to feel like a comforting solution or viable option to end the pain that no longer feels endurable. depression is not a choice nor a character flaw, and it is not a decision of someone ‘wanting to feel sorry for themselves,’ or not being able to cope with life’s challenges. suicide is not about being selfish or weak, but rather, it’s about pain. it’s about loss of hope. and i think we forget that it’s human nature to want to end suffering, to find relief. to be clear, it is not my intention to encourage, promote, or advocate for suicide. i am however, challenging you to empathize with another person’s experience before making a judgement or criticism about their character.
since beginning this profession, i’ve been collecting other people’s stories. and these stories- their life experiences- have been guiding and shaping my interactions with others. conversations with people who are both chronically homeless and transiently homeless demonstrate to me the complicatedness of poverty, the challenges of locating affordable housing, and the difficulties of maintaing competitive employment while also living with a mental illness and/or addiction. play dates with children in foster care and with children who have been severely abused and neglected remind me of the impact of abuse on cognitive development, emotional regulation, and attachment. and when working with these children when they later become adults, i consider their childhoods and the traumas they’ve endured. i think it’s important to recognize the number of factors that contribute to a person’s behaviors and perception of the world. i am also aware that some people-regardless of their upbringing, or despite having a ‘healthy’ upbringing- will make poor choices. and even then, i attempt to understand. because what i know is that you cannot reduce people to simplistic generalizations based on your limited understanding of their situation. it is much more complicated than that.
and what i know is that there are still so many people in this world who do not understand. who choose not to understand. and who continue to blame people for the suffering they do not take the time to understand. and so if your understanding of depression or suicide is one that blames the person who is struggling with the mental illness, i would challenge that your knowledge of their life and experiences is incomplete. i would challenge you to have one conversation with a person who has had thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide, or who struggles with a mental illness. i challenge you to be curious rather than judgmental. open minded and open hearted. i challenge you to seek to understand rather than assume that you already know.
and so this post is for you. for those whose suffering feels unnoticed. for those people who feel quietly stuck inside their mind. for those that feel hopeless. for those whose cries for help are mislabeled or misunderstood as cries for attention or flaws in their being. for the people who feel too tired to continue on. for people who struggle with depression and for people who don’t. for people who are having a bad day, a bad season, or a rough stretch of life. and for those people who don’t understand the illness but are willing to try.
It’s okay – whatever you need, wherever you are, however long it takes – it’s okay.
there is still time.
to ask for help. to grow. to heal. to recover.
there is still time for the sunshine to begin to seep through the cracks. for a flower to grow straight from your heart.
just in case.
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They are available 24/7
- Talk to someone online through the Lifeline Crisis Chat
- Teens can get text support from the Crisis Text Line by texting “listen” to 741-741.
- Veterans in crisis can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.
- Call 911.