#RobinWilliams and how we talk about the bear…

#RobinWilliams is trending tonight. It will probably be the last time.
It isn’t necessary to recount his genius. Surely any resident of a country with televisions or movie theaters has, in the last 35 years, laughed at Mork or Mrs. Doubtfire, or been moved in other ways by Patch Adams, Sean Maguire, John Keating or Adrian Cronauer.
“Shocked” is a word being used often on social media. Really? I’m shocked that people are shocked. Mr. Williams always seemed very manic and his bouts with depression had been reported in the past.
And I am shocked that in 2014, with all the resources available, people know so little about mental illness or depression or suicide. Shocked that people still say things like, “That is so selfish,” or “Why didn’t he think of his family?”
I respectfully submit that if you asked either of these questions tonight about Robin Williams, you don’t understand depression or mental illness.
This is not an attempt to analyze Mr. Williams or to be morose, but a plea for more understanding of a large and common problem.
Some of the most wonderful, caring, talented people I know suffer bouts of depression. It is frustrating for them. It is challenging for their loved ones.  
It isn’t a Hollywood thing or a selfish thing or a weakness thing. It’s a human thing that takes 40,000 lives in the US every year.
My eighth grade Geography teacher had the same response every time a student complained about a test question or the pop quiz we were about to take…
“Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you”
Each of us has a bear. Your bear might not be named Depression, but you have one.
Ask yourself this – do you feel awkward when a coworker says h/she is going to Weight Watchers or having gastric bypass? How about if a friend discusses AA meetings? Or discloses a gambling problem? No, we support these folks – and rightfully so. Television is filled with them. Hoorah for their victory.
Now think about the last time someone in your office talked about going to a therapist or psychiatrist?  The last time a friend opened dinner conversation by announcing a diagnosis of mental illness in the family? Awkward, right?
We are a society immersed in discussion about obesity, cancer, diabetes, physical disease after physical disease. We act like we just can’t help ourselves, like these conditions are thrust on us.
When James Gandolfini died, did anyone accuse him of being selfish and not considering his family or his vast talent before he ate himself into a heart attack at 51? No, we called it “natural causes.”
But mental illness? It makes us uncomfortable. It’s a weakness or the people are, well, crazy. If you were applying for a job, would you feel free to disclose an illness requiring psychological help? I’m guessing most of us wouldn’t. 
And Robin Williams? His suicide causes us to use phrases such as, “how selfish” and “what a waste” and “why didn’t he get help?”
He did get help. Unfortunately, on this day, the bear was bigger and meaner.
Yes, suicide is a choice. But it isn’t a choice like pie or cake. Or even a choice like exercise or be a slug.
It is a choice made in the bottom of a pit with more pressure weighing down and more darkness than a person can tolerate for one more second. I’m guessing Mr. Williams was not cavalier and uncaring, but so ripped apart that nothing besides giving up seemed possible.
That doesn’t make it right – just real.
I know people tonight who can honestly say they have never given one second of thought to a decision like that. Good for them.
I know people tonight who can honestly say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Really good for them.  
Suicide isn’t a good choice. It is irreversible and painful in a hundred ways.  It doesn’t make sense.
Neither does eating an average of 152 pounds of sugar per American per year.
Think about how different those two dialogues are.
Imagine if there were ways we could help beat back the bear. Imagine if we began talking about mental illness and depression as freely as we discuss overeating and smoking and substance abuse and cancer. Imagine how many people might feel like they are not alone. Imagine if we stop looking at suicide as a selfish act by weak, crazy people who don’t care, thereby alienating anyone who has ever had a suicidal thought.
I am not naïve or foolish. Mental illness is a large and powerful bear, and sometimes it wins.
But our social dialogue doesn’t help. Imagine if we started to change that.
RIP, Robin Williams.

Beth Painter is, among many other things, a writer and motivational speaker. You can follow her on Facebook on the “Think Big focus small” page.

Beth is available to speak to your group about how to make your dreams and desires come to life! 

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  1. Well said, Beth! I have some personal experience with mental illness. The stigma attached, is a terrible weight to bear! Discussions are great, because it helps to bring an issue to the forefront. Changing people's personal and historical attitudes, is going to take time. Unfortunately, the death of Robin Williams, gives cause to open that dialogue. Robin Williams death, although tragic, may allow, someone to live.

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