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Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. Headshot

Reaching Those Who Suffer: What We Must Learn From Robin William's Suicide

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Our nation is mourning the loss of Robin Williams and trying to make sense of how someone so gifted, so smart, and so well loved could be in such emotional pain that he chose to end his life rather than continue to fight against the thoughts and feelings that tormented him. Many are asking how someone who made us laugh so easily, so effortlessly and so consistently could be unable to find relief from the crushing sadness and despair that eventually overwhelmed him. And then there are those families who have also lost a loved one to suicide -- in 2011 alone, over 39,000 Americans committed suicide. For them, Robin Williams's death is a brutal reminder of the inability to rescue those we love who suffer from distorted self-perceptions, or devastating guilt or unbearable shame, which can lead to the irreversible decision that rips them from our lives.

In addition to being extremely talented, Robin Williams was incredibly generous. The performer, who died Monday at the age of 63, participated in numerous charitable efforts -- including the hugely successful Comic Relief concerts -- to raise awareness of and funds for the homeless in our society. He visited more than 89,000 troops in 13 countries over the 10 years that he worked with the USO, leading many to call him the Bob Hope of his time.

Robin Williams spoke openly about his struggle with drugs and alcohol, which began early in his career during the run of his hit TV show, Mork and Mindy (1978-1982). By the early 1980s he was using cocaine regularly, often partying heavily with other entertainers including John Belushi, whom he visited the night the actor died of an overdose in 1982. But Robin Williams eventually got sober and remained so for two decades, doing some of his best film work and earning an Academy Award for his portrayal of a unconventional therapist in the film Good Will Hunting. A relapse led him into treatment and eventually back to sobriety in 2006, though it seems that his was an ongoing battle to remain sober. Williams apparently checked himself into a rehab facility this summer to make sure his rehab held, suggesting that perhaps he was experiencing considerable stress and strain at the time.

Routinely noted for his manic behavior on screen and during public appearances, many have speculated that perhaps Robin Williams suffered from bipolar disorder, though the actor never mentioned this diagnosis when speaking about his personal challenges. Many who knew him off screen have commented on a palpable sadness or melancholy that seemed to characterize the actor's private self.

Regardless of whether or not his collection of symptoms fits easily into a specific diagnostic category of mental illness, it is clear that Robin Williams suffered terribly. And unlike many Americans who struggle with mental illness, Robin Williams had access to care -- arguably the best care that our country can offer. So what happened to him? Why did he choose suicide, and why couldn't he let those close to him know that he was in such danger? Of course, there are no easy or simple answers to these questions -- there never are. But we can guess that he felt hopeless, perhaps as if he was a burden to those he loved. Perhaps he believed that he was weak or to blame or unworthy. Sadly, these are feelings shared by many who contemplate or commit suicide.

As a society we do an extremely poor job of addressing mental health and mental illness. Access to care is indeed one problem for many. But our perceptions of and ideas about mental health and mental illness are far more destructive to those in need of care and support. It's as if we have become numb to the suffering of those who experience mental health challenges or mental illness. We accept that some will become homeless, we accept that some will become dysfunctional, we accept that some will end up in prison and we accept that some will commit suicide. In reality, there is so much we can do to help those who are trapped inside their pain and suffering. But to reach those who suffer -- to ensure that they reach out to us-we must change our culture and our reaction to the mental health challenges that affect one in four Americans. We must remove the shame and guilt associated with mental illness and, rather than accept suffering, accept the fact that mental health is an integral and important aspect of the human condition. We must accept that mental illness is akin to cancer or heart disease or any other condition that requires ongoing care: a condition that many people can, with proper care and support, recover from. Once we do that we will begin to save lives that do not have to be lost.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.