Robin Williams, mental anguish and cultures of silence

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A death, particularly of a celebrity by suicide, is a big thing, more so when the celebrity is someone who seems to be at a pinnacle in his life, popularity and fan-following. So what could be the reason for such a death and how should others, who look at it in disbelief and dejection, see it? If someone who was so well applauded for his work, won many an award or nomination, then what despair could it be that could not be overcome despite such ‘success’ and adulation?

Suicide is always a many sided phenomenon, never a linear progression and to link it to depression is the easiest anyone can offer as analysis. However, depression by default does not lead to suicide, though the likelihood of lurking depression among those who attempt or commit suicide, could be a correlate. This writing is a miniscule deconstruction of celebrity suicide (with this one as case in point), in its sociological aspects and an attempt to tell others who suffer how suicide is not something we need to be shocked at in this instance, but at the alienation of a human, despite every sign of success and how unimportant those outer signs of success are in the overall scheme of life and sense of joy. So in case your depression is coming from a sense of failure or that you are feeling lost and lonely whereas there are others who are shining and winning accolades of all sorts, this is another side of that shining life.

Men often suffer in silence, and do not want to be seen as anything but macho in dealing with emotions. So the likelihood of a man seeking help or support of a therapist or any other ‘talking professional’ is that much more diminished, because they see it as a sign of weakness, which is culturally indoctrinated from the time a little boy is told, “Don’t cry like a girl/baby”. There is a whole process of socialization of what emotions are desirable in public and what are not, and everyone learns to fake it early in life- for mostly it is the family which leads the way in teaching what is acceptable and what is not.

Secondly, the final act of suicide, which implies a whole complex array of thought spent on what is the best way to commit it, that ensures success in the first attempt itself, is proof of the alienation that a person has from their environment. No matter what they have accomplished in the public sphere, how happy or joyful they appear in public portrayals of success, their own art/craftsmanship, companionship or even make others laugh, the fact that comes out in the end is, that they are not able to connect various other dots in their lives and neither they want to seek anyone’s support on the issue. OR, more worryingly, if they have sought that support, that support itself was not correct!

I work in research in mental health and all evidence to me that comes from those suffering from disabling mental illnesses is that talking to clinical psychologists, among others, is often counter-productive! I can further corroborate this from two dimensions- both experiential also. I myself had a very damaging interaction with a young clinical psychologist, in my younger years, when I suffered from bipolar disorder. It was a chance encounter with a Jungian therapist that made me change my views about therapy, for I had no intention of meeting a psychologist again, after that meeting in a psychiatric clinic in the early 2000s, with that young woman I mentioned in earlier lines. Now I am head of a team, that includes young people with degrees in clinical psychology as well, and they tell me that the role that a clinical psychologist is expected to  play in the hierarchy of mental health is to augment the work of a psychiatrist. So if the psychiatrist recommends medication, the psychologist will further argue with the patient/client that the medication be taken as the first line of action and then some therapy can be effective. In other words, they do not really have either an idea of human suffering, nor they have an independent line of thought that can stand on its own feet, to deal with mental distress as something that comes from the social environment of a person. They are also taught in their training programs that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM) is the bible in mental health, without being told the flip side of it or whether such a side even exists.

There is any number of research evidences that talks about the inefficacy of psychiatric medication, its harmful effects, including suicidal ideation, violence and whatnot. I am not delving into the long lists here, but what I am trying to derive at is that the among the side effects of psychiatric medication, also antidepressants, there is a whole possibility of suicidal thoughts coming to those who consume such medication. Oh yes, my own experience also confirms that.

Fear or uncertainty about future/imaginary illnesses, (isn’t hypochondria something similar) or the onset of a new one is also something that can make anyone suffering from depression even more depressed. Williams had recently been given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which is a progressively disabling condition. However, he did not have the resources internally or possibly around him to deal with it, in a manner that did not cut his life short. If we look at another celebrity story, whose life was also fraught with something equally distressing, we can all really admire the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease ( his son claims, that the onset of Alzheimer’s possibly happened during his presidential years). So that brings us to the question of disability and how people cope with disabling conditions of the body or mind.

David B. Oaks had been an activist in mental health for nearly three decades of his life, till he was disabled by another condition. Despite that, he continues to inspire people through his courageous spirit, attitude and commitment to work for the larger good of humanity. The reason I bring up his story is to draw attention to the fact that suicide is a possibility we all face- it is so much easier to kill yourself than go through the tragic meanderings of unknown sufferings of the body or mind. So why does one commit suicide while another does not? Is it that those who commit suicide are more courageous, more desperate, selfish, cowardly or what? Nelson Mandela lived for 27 years in prison, in the course of which he faced innumerable acts of inhumanity and violations at the hands of the prison guards, including not being allowed to attend the funeral of his daughter. Similarly, Victor Frankl talks about his sufferings during the holocaust years. One could imagine that they wanting to commit suicide would make more logical sense than someone as successful or seemingly so, like Robin Williams.

It means we need to reconsider what is success. More significantly what is the significance of the success of one person when the whole world is suffering? In that case you are unable to connect with anyone else, because in your success you become a prisoner of a façade that you have to maintain. I am certain Williams would have always portrayed an image of a happy man, or worse a comedian! How many times would that have been only a façade? So may be when you see yourself on the continuum of the human experience, your success contributes something to the overall success of the human race in some dimension and your failure, an overall human failure, not just your personal one. That is why when one person commits an act of suicide hundreds around him/her are affected in different ways. And when we combine our individual suffering with the suffering of the world around us, we will be pulled away from the brink of suicide no matter how many reasons compel us to consider suicide. That is where a Nelson Mandela, a Thich Naht Hanh or a Victor Frankl will stand out, whereas those caught in the trappings of their own imaginations will perish.

Everyone who is depressed needs to remember that our lives are scripts that get written every day- NOT one final day, when we get a diagnosis.  Celebrities and actors look good from a distance- their lives in reality are often not all that great and what we hear them talk on screen is dialogues written by others, not themselves. Given their choices and vulnerabilities, they are only as fragile as you and me, and you tell them to write the scripts of their lives then we see what they make of it every day in newspaper stories, which we are continuously bombarded with.

Suicide is a personal and a social act. It remains personal if you think your suffering is your own and it is only your responsibility how you deal with your life and its fluctuations. Instead, if you think you are a social being and your death could be of consequence to many others, you may consider being more responsible. If you remain in the first model, of individualism, then your life and your death, only matter to you and that  is cowardly, irresponsible and a punishment you are putting others through. Especially those who love you, and who will be left to clean up after you have left the world in a huff, what to mention the emotional mess, which will haunt them for their lifetime ahead- including mental breakdowns in older years in some cases.

Instead of looking up to celebrities, who are the modern day gods and goddesses, shall we not look at the great people around us (believe me there are so many even in your own neighbourhood) to see that a hero can have a thousand faces, or may be millions.

If we think that we are connected to everyone on this planet earth and one act of violence toward anyone would be an act of violence toward everyone – we may value our lives differently, and not commit that act of violence even toward our own selves, because we are NOT THE OWNERS of ourselves- the world owns us and that is who we need to owe an explanation to. That is the stage when we would have moved on to a different level in our evolutionary journey- from the personal to the transpersonal self. And that is the only journey worth making finally. Among the many things I read in the context of Williams’ death, the one thing I consider worth sharing is by a professor from Liverpool.

 Yet cultures of silence, which teach men to hide their sufferings and despair, becoming ‘real men’ will continue and take many a life and a big toll, unless men and women both realize that a life in which we balance our masculine and feminine energies, polarities and sensibilities is a life which will keep us safe, humane and centered. Isn’t it time to question these cultures of silence that want men to remain emotionally frozen and robotic? What is your view?

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2 thoughts on “Robin Williams, mental anguish and cultures of silence

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