*%&$ Bipolar Disorder (and Depression, and other Mental Illness)

robin-williamsRobin Williams’ death is a blow to just about everyone I know. Young or old, black or white, Jewish, Christian, athiest… I have yet to hear one person say they were not touched, saddened, or outright devastated by the news that at 63 years of age, this beloved actor, comedian, entertainer extraordinaire took his own life after a long struggle with bipolar disorder, a mental illness where a person vacillates between periods of extreme energy, creativity, focus and productivity (the manic end of the spectrum) and periods of severe depression. Suicide is not uncommon for sufferers of bipolar disorder when they succumb to a depressive state, and Robin Williams–as great as he was–was but human and was unable to win his battle with the demons that haunted him.

I know so many people who will judge his suicide as a selfish choice. They’ll see only that he deprived the world of his genius, his wife of his companionship, his family of his love. This only underscores how insidious bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses really are. Mental illness still carries with it a stigma of choice, as if we have more control over our brain chemistry than we do over the functionality of our other organs–lungs, hearts, livers, kidneys. You see posts all over Facebook that raise awareness for cancer (e.g. *%&# Cancer posts) or ALS (ice bucket challenges), but how often do you see people raising awareness for diseases of the brain? There is no cure for bipolar disorder which requires lifelong treatment with medication, therapy, and careful life choices. Medications make the sufferer feel like they live in a fog, robbed of their creativity and productivity. The absence of the medication may cause risky behavior or dangerous depressive cycles. Thoughts of suicide is the most severe “symptom” of severe clinical depression and yet we decry successful (or even unsuccessful) suicide attempts as a selfish choice.

From the outside looking in, we may think Robin Williams had everything to be happy about and live for. Success. Fame. Worldwide admiration and adoration. A family who loved him. But we can’t know the demons that plagued him and we still have very little medical research to begin to understand the physiology behind the disease from which he suffered.

I hope that his death helps people who suffer from mental illness, or suspect they might, come forward and talk to their doctors. Elevate the conversation to a medical level, not a shameful failing of personality. Make it important enough for big pharma to want to study the brain (after all, they’re in business to make money, so they need to see a pathway to profit) or for government agencies to sponsor the research and remove the stigma so we can get people help, develop treatments that help people not only cope but thrive with mental illness.

Suicide is not the choice of a healthy brain. It’s a symptom of serious illnesses that desperately needs funding, discussion, and elevation to medical status alongside cancer, ALS, and others that affect so many in such devastating ways. Let’s talk about it. Let’s remove the stigma. It’s time.

Update:

Read this article from The Guardian. Just do it.

What? You haven’t clicked yet?

Here’s the teaser, and I quote:

News of Robin Williams’s death due to apparent suicide, said to be a result of suffering severe depression, is terribly sad. But to say taking your own life because of such an illness is a ‘selfish’ act does nothing but insult the deceased, potentially cause more harm and reveal a staggering ignorance of mental health problems.

It’s especially important to read if you’re scratching your head and wondering how you might see suicide as anything but selfish. This might help you understand.

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