Robin Williams, mental illness, and the stigma epidemic

Robin Williams, mental illness, and the stigma epidemic

The tragic death of Comedian Robin Williams, in an apparent suicide, has placed the issues of mental illness, suicide, and associated ignorance and stigma, firmly in the public sphere.

Last year over 6,000 people in the UK took their own lives. Unless you were a family member, friend, or acquaintance, it is unlikely you will be able to name any of them. Their faces, personalities, and problems remain hidden from the public conscious.

The untimely passing of Robin Williams has presented us with a stark reminder of the devastating impact that mental illness can have on an individual and their families - regardless of fame, wealth or status.
Despite, apparently ‘coming a long way’ over the last thirty years, in terms of parity of esteem for mental health problems, and a reduction in stigma, It serves as an uncomfortable, yet necessary wake-up call as to how lacking many people are in the most basic understanding of mental illness.

Mental illness has always been perceived as ‘something that happens to ‘other people’, yet 1 in 4 people across the UK will experience a mental health problem of some description during their lifetime, with between 8-12% of the population suffering from depression in any given year. The facts of the matter are that everyone, directly or indirectly, will be affected by mental illness.

The death of a celebrity in such circumstances always brings out an army of armchair experts and professional trolls who swamp social media with their ignorance and bile. In less than 24 hours the internet has been awash with such pearls of wisdom as – “What did he have to be depressed about? He had millions in the bank, a beautiful wife, and children.”, “He is selfish, plain and simple”, and “He was an alcoholic and a druggie for decades – no wonder he was depressed.” sadly, such ill-conceived attitudes are emanating from a much larger cross-section of society than I expected.

I have no intention to try and analyse the life or problems of Robin Williams. I do not have possession of the facts, nor is it any of my business.

So why do we struggle to get our heads around ‘mental illness’, or more specifically ‘depression’? Firstly, it is an illness that falls outside the parameters of traditional or old-fashioned models of physical health care. An illness that does not always present with visual symptoms or a tangible impact can be a difficult idea to grasp. This is often compounded when individuals attempt to put themselves in another person’s shoes - ‘I lost my job, but I didn’t get depressed’. Ultimately, ‘depression’ is an illness that has biological as well as sociological origins, and such crude attempts to draw comparisons do not stand up to scrutiny.

Secondly, the lack of any meaningful education or health promotion from an early age plots a course of ignorance that is then exacerbated during adolescence and adulthood by outrageous portrayals in the print and broadcast media, of ‘mad axe men’ and ‘lunatics’, and by the propagation of disingenuous correlations between instances of crime and the mentally ill.

Based on that lack of education, media and societal misrepresentation - stigma festers through every aspect of our lives. We make judgements, often unpleasant ones, about the person you work with who is ‘off sick’ with stress, whose colleagues sneer, or the ‘eccentric’ man who lives at the end of the road, or the new mother with post-natal depression, or the rich celebrity, seemingly with it all, who takes his own life…

When people suffering with depression hear such regressive attitudes, hear relatives talking about how ‘we just got on with it in my day’, or hear B-list celebrities on the TV and radio belittle their lived experiences, is it any wonder that they would rather suffer in silence than seek out appropriate help?

Mental illness is truly one of the great health problems of our age, yet it will never receive the respect it deserves or the resources it requires in order to tackle it, as long as the narrative around mental illness is one of stigma, smear, and ridicule.

Robin Williams could have been anyone. He could have been your husband, wife, son, daughter, sister, or brother - his celebrity status is of no relevance. Whilst he was just one man, his death and the accompanying media circus has reflected back to us the ugly epidemic of stigma and ableism that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK endure on a daily basis.

Posted By

working class s...
Aug 12 2014 22:33

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  • Whilst he was just one man, his death and the accompanying media circus has reflected back to us the ugly epidemic of stigma and ableism that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK endure on a daily basis.

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Comments

Kureigo-San
Aug 13 2014 08:15

With depression, for some reason the last thing people are willing to do is listen compassionately to all that you have to say. I've found that the 'I'll fix it!' responses exacerbate the anxiety a lot also albeit in a different way - it really makes your whole experience into a problem to be fixed. Ironically, the best fixer is the one who doesn't try to fix, and just lets you pour and pour, and then maybe offers you a hug at the end of it. I'm still looking for that person. Maybe I can do someone the pleasure of being that for them in future.

Auld-bod
Aug 13 2014 16:36

This may read like bollocks though I think it worth saying. It appears to me that the root of these unsympathetic attitudes is fear - that somehow the ‘down’ may be contagious. The fear of becoming immersed in someone else’s illness/problems is endemic in all aspects of our alienated world. It is not restricted to mental illness. Guilt resulting from the denial of our better selves results in various forms of escapism. I’m as guilty of this as much as anyone. Fear, like a cancer, is ugly though to face it is the only way to contain it.

armillaria
Aug 14 2014 01:23

Many of us would love to seek out help, but, it's really not available. The crisis hotlines and the like pose the very real risk of getting us arrested, locked up, and drugged to the gills - often by the very same professional bodies that run "anti-stigma" campaigns, by which they really mean, there should be no stigma in admitting that you are sick, that you need our help, and that you need to accept our power-over you for your own safety.

Everyone I know who's attempted suicide has profoundly personal reasons for doing so, and I'm scared of how efficiently that can all be ignored, when our most desperate, last-resort reactions to the unlivable can be seen as only a medical problem.

Kureigo-San, I really appreciate what you said.
I'm sorry there aren't people in your life right now who can listen without needing to be saviors, without laying on delusional positive thinking. I'm glad that you're able to divest from those illusions and face reality with people.
Honestly, seeing your post was somewhat of a relief for me, because the absence of people who could hear me say those things, has often been my biggest reason for finding life unmanageable, and felt like some huge fundamental failure on my part. Because, if I'd done something better, if I'd had more to offer others, if I'd been smarter or more adaptable or something - then wouldn't I have such people in my life?

But, no. It's a mass condition, it's common to many of us, it's pretty vicious. And even in these times, I've found teachers and confidantes - scattered, sporadically, often limited by similar struggles of their own, but still real.

Flava O Flav
Aug 14 2014 16:06

"Many of us would love to seek out help, but, it's really not available. The crisis hotlines and the like pose the very real risk of getting us arrested, locked up, and drugged to the gills - often by the very same professional bodies that run "anti-stigma" campaigns, by which they really mean, there should be no stigma in admitting that you are sick, that you need our help, and that you need to accept our power-over you for your own safety."

This hits the nail on the head. I suffer from depression, on and off. There's a seasonal aspect to it, but other aspects too. I talked to my doctor about it. She wanted to give be Lexapro. Now, I'd never discourage people from meds if they were inclined towards them, but I really didn't want to. I have a fear of not being myself if I take them, and I read things about side affects that I didn't fancy risking. I have taken xanax for anxiety in the past and was a little too fond of them.

I went to a therapist too, it was all mindfullness and CBT and I really couldn't get on board with the fix it in your head approach and as I didn't get with the method, I found it difficult to open up. I went to one that was more analysis based a few years ago, and felt that it was going nowhere and was too bloody expensive. So really I'm just venting. I have no immediate solution to any of this (other than full communism now etc etc).

Kureigo-San
Aug 14 2014 17:10

Would full communism even alleviate these seasonal depressions totally or even substantially? I'm not sure it would, because a lot of our depressions are based on false perceptions at the unconscious level - no doubt planted by our current social organisation - but does changing a system just pluck them out of us as if they were just meddlesome thumb tacks? What's to stop us inflicting our dysfunctions and hang ups on our children and lovers? I've found the force of habit to be a real bastard.

Norman Young
Aug 14 2014 17:50

I think that depression is especially problematical with the male population in which we have to maintain the "stiff upper lip" within society. It has always been seen as a weakness to show your emotions and how you feel, even to your close friends, also their is the stigma attached to mental illness whereby people become wary of those afflicted by it, as if it were contagious. We must also address the underlying causes associated with this illness such as unemployment, or if you are in employment, the shitty jobs that most people do. I think that in order to address these problems we have to change the society in which we're living in, a society based on people not profits would be a good start, and an end to the madness of the market economy in which your whole status is based on your bank-balance and how much property you own.

Flava O Flav
Aug 15 2014 10:39
Kureigo-San wrote:
Would full communism even alleviate these seasonal depressions totally or even substantially? I'm not sure it would, because a lot of our depressions are based on false perceptions at the unconscious level - no doubt planted by our current social organisation - but does changing a system just pluck them out of us as if they were just meddlesome thumb tacks? What's to stop us inflicting our dysfunctions and hang ups on our children and lovers? I've found the force of habit to be a real bastard.

Well, I was being a little bit flippant and I don't think FC would completely eradicate depression, but I do think it and the process of societal transformation would help significantly. Collective responses as opposed individualised ones have got to be better. Acceptance that different personality traits are not disorders and cannot be forced into the slots required by capital/the state without triggering illness.

On the seasonal thing, well, if wage labour was abolished we would have to spend less time indoors and thus get more sunlight, lack of sunlight/vit D being a key contributory factor to seasonal depression (I started to take a supplement during the winter months and am going to get a lightbox this winter if I can afford it).

I'm wary about generalising but I believe that some people are genetically predisposed to depression and other forms of mental illness, but like with more accepted forms of illness, knowledge of these predispositions mean that we can avoid the things that trigger them - but not under capitalism which creates necessity to do things that can harm us both physically and mentally to make ends meet.

Red Marriott
Aug 15 2014 15:56
Quote:
Robin Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease when he died earlier this week in an apparent suicide, according to his wife, Susan Schneider. In a statement released today, Schneider said that the 63-year-old star, who had previously battled alcoholism, was sober at the time of his death, but was suffering from anxiety and depression and “was not yet ready to share publicly” his struggle with the debilitating disease. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/robin-williams-dead-actor-had-early-signs-of-parkinsons-and-was-sober-when-he-died-says-his-wife-susan-schneider-9670118.html
freemind
Aug 21 2014 07:32

I suffer from stress and depression which is mostly due to workplace bullying and experiences that were similar in my adolescence.Ive felt in deep despair and have been in some scary places in the past and feel alienated and vulnerable at times.
In the workplace I have been forced out of a couple of jobs because I was victimised for no reason that was divulged to me and management were indifferent and apathetic despite Numerous Doctors reports and written testimony.
I fight the Boss and stand up for others due to my Political beliefs and this makes me a target for those in power.This leaves me in fear of my job and financial stress leads to chaotic thoughts and a feeling of impotence.
I haven't read Reich or a specific books on the topic but organisations like MIND are useless and when it comes to the workplace my Union are awful and act in unison with management to the extent that I've left it.
Capitalism is the cause of Mental illness 99% of the time although I agree that hereditary factors exist.
Medication is a form of control and exploitation which I abandoned.
Alienation,powerlessness,vulnerability,disenfranchisement,desperation,self destruction and enslavement are all symptoms of Depression and Capitalism inflicts these.They are exacerbated by the lack of mutual understanding and compassion imbued in us by the State.Anarchists need to explore this more as its one of the most telling and extreme method a and examples of the nature of our enslavement and our oppression.

KFC Hangover
Aug 30 2014 04:27

I think the reason for most suicides is not that we have problems, it's that we dont talk to anyone about it. Some people wont go to psychologist for help or feel to scared to talk to loved one's for fear of judgement. I think this was the case with Mr. Williams. He may have felt trapped as his loved one's were separated by divorce and felt like his problems would be publicized if he went to a counselor. I guess there came a point in his life like in everyone elses mind who commits suicide that there life can never succeed in getting better. this of course is false. But what i dislike is the fact that when celebrities commit suicide it's so publicized. I hate how people "mourn" when a celebrity dies or commits suicide, but there's people that kill them selves every day and we put labels on them like "goth" "emo" "crazy" ect. I find it really a sad moment in humanity when people mourn over someone that they never knew and publicize it and feel so upset but would do nothing to help the person. Did Mr. Williams have anyone to help him during this time? Not to my knowledge. Do the countless people in the United States and the world that are suicidal ever have anyone say "are you ok?' "do you want to talk?" Not most of the time. I think in order to prevent some of these suicides from happening just ask the person if there ok. That is probably the best way to prevent this along with psychiatric help.

KFC Hangover
Aug 30 2014 04:36
freemind wrote:
I suffer from stress and depression which is mostly due to workplace bullying and experiences that were similar in my adolescence.Ive felt in deep despair and have been in some scary places in the past and feel alienated and vulnerable at times.
In the workplace I have been forced out of a couple of jobs because I was victimised for no reason that was divulged to me and management were indifferent and apathetic despite Numerous Doctors reports and written testimony.
I fight the Boss and stand up for others due to my Political beliefs and this makes me a target for those in power.This leaves me in fear of my job and financial stress leads to chaotic thoughts and a feeling of impotence.
I haven't read Reich or a specific books on the topic but organisations like MIND are useless and when it comes to the workplace my Union are awful and act in unison with management to the extent that I've left it.
Capitalism is the cause of Mental illness 99% of the time although I agree that hereditary factors exist.
Medication is a form of control and exploitation which I abandoned.
Alienation,powerlessness,vulnerability,disenfranchisement,desperation,self destruction and enslavement are all symptoms of Depression and Capitalism inflicts these.They are exacerbated by the lack of mutual understanding and compassion imbued in us by the State.Anarchists need to explore this more as its one of the most telling and extreme method a and examples of the nature of our enslavement and our oppression.

I understand were your coming from my job was very laborious and hard and i did get harassed by fellow workers but i have to disagree that capitalism isnt the cause of this. It is a good theory but depression and bullying and insults occurred in socialist, communist societies just as often as they do in capitalist societies. People are people and yes economics do affect how a person acts but to a point and i hate to say this but under Capitalism, socialism, communism etc there will always be poor people and poverty does factor into emotional actions but some poor people are very nice and some are not. This is just my view on things smile

freemind
Aug 30 2014 08:00

KFC Hangover:-)
Thanks for the comments but I'm a little confused as to your belief that Capitalism/State has no bearing on Mental illness.The so called Communist countries were State Capitalist and Communism in its truest form has only existed briefly in small or brief macro examples.
Therefore it seems hard to judge as essentially every method of organising society has been Capitalist to date.
It's the fact that class,hierarchy,power,control,division etc exist and the alienation from our labour that facilitates powerlessness and despair that brings us to this point.
If an Anarchist/Libertarian Communist society still had inequality and poverty it wouldn't be what it claimed to be and we would still have the status quo.
People can be irrational and angry and hurtful at times I agree but the world the Capitalists control today compounds and magnifies the consequences and the divisions between people.
In a just society these human emotions would have less fallout and would be greatly decreased due to workers empowerment and the involvement of people in the life of their communities.
In due process this would neutralise alienation and invigorate individuals with a sense of purpose and communitarianism that fuels mutual aid and solidarity within a society.A society of conscious workers and liberated individuals and rounded full human beings not the depleted shadows and automatons we are today.
When we feel we make a difference and that our work makes an impact for others we are content.The State/Capital atomises,isolates and alienates our labour and denigrates.Our labour and ourselves are commodified and we are dehumanised and mere market whores and slaves.Depression goes hand in hand with this matrix of exploitation and slavery.Its how they control and profit and ultimately destroy us.

KFC Hangover
Aug 30 2014 17:58
freemind wrote:
KFC Hangover:-)
Thanks for the comments but I'm a little confused as to your belief that Capitalism/State has no bearing on Mental illness.The so called Communist countries were State Capitalist and Communism in its truest form has only existed briefly in small or brief macro examples.
Therefore it seems hard to judge as essentially every method of organising society has been Capitalist to date.
It's the fact that class,hierarchy,power,control,division etc exist and the alienation from our labour that facilitates powerlessness and despair that brings us to this point.
If an Anarchist/Libertarian Communist society still had inequality and poverty it wouldn't be what it claimed to be and we would still have the status quo.
People can be irrational and angry and hurtful at times I agree but the world the Capitalists control today compounds and magnifies the consequences and the divisions between people.
In a just society these human emotions would have less fallout and would be greatly decreased due to workers empowerment and the involvement of people in the life of their communities.
In due process this would neutralise alienation and invigorate individuals with a sense of purpose and communitarianism that fuels mutual aid and solidarity within a society.A society of conscious workers and liberated individuals and rounded full human beings not the depleted shadows and automatons we are today.
When we feel we make a difference and that our work makes an impact for others we are content.The State/Capital atomises,isolates and alienates our labour and denigrates.Our labour and ourselves are commodified and we are dehumanised and mere market whores and slaves.Depression goes hand in hand with this matrix of exploitation and slavery.Its how they control and profit and ultimately destroy us.

You have a point. If anything we should adopt a form of Market Socialism which is capitalism and socialism combined. Idk capitalism and socialism are flawed in there own unique ways.