Co-authors: Rain Henderson, CEO Clinton Health Matters Initiative
John MacPhee, Executive Director and CEO, The Jed Foundation
Any suicide death is tragic. And, when the person was so famous, beloved and funny as Robin Williams was, the death is even more jarring. News reports attempt to dispel the natural anxiety raised by such an event by conveying every small bit of information they can uncover. This reporting is often intrusively painful to the friends and family of the deceased and may be dangerous to the public. (The impact of media reporting on the risk of suicide contagion has already been discussed by several other experts. We would like to discuss another untoward consequence of very public and highly reported suicides; namely, the impact on our perceptions of mental illness and stigma.
Unfortunately, to a large extent, public perceptions of mental illness and the mentally ill are formed by the media. And much of the reporting about mental illness (and substance abuse) focuses on the worst and most florid outcomes. We hear about Robin Williams' suicide and Philip Seymour Hoffman's overdose. The people we might see on the street who are often suffering from the most severe and persistent mental illness and substance abuse problems. As a result, most of us have a skewed view and associate "mental illness" only with the most severely malignant forms of mental illness. The media rarely report on the people who had problems, got treatment and got better -- these don't make for "interesting" stories.
In fact, just as with physical illness, there is a continuum of symptoms and severity of illness. People can have a stomach ache that is reflective of a mild problem and resolves spontaneously or gets better with minimal treatment, just as they can have mild to moderate anxiety or depression which gets better with a bit of time or some brief treatment. Or the stomach ache might reflect a more serious problem. We usually go for help if it is very bad pain or too persistent. We should do the same thing with anxiety or depression.
When we talk about "stigma" in relation to mental illness and the mentally ill what we actually mean is these illnesses and these mentally ill people make us uneasy, anxious, or frightened. But as might be obvious from the comments above, if our perception of mental illness is limited to the most severe and malignant forms of illness, it should not surprise us that mental illness would be frightening. If we felt that all physical illness was completely unmanageable and likely lethal we would be equally frightened of being told we are physically ill (in fact, 100 years or so ago, this was often the case).
What are the facts?
1) Mental illness and substance abuse -- like physical illness occur along a continuum of severity from mild to severe and sadly sometimes even life threatening or life ending.
2) Many mental illnesses can come and go, many are treatable or manageable and we have very effective treatments for many of these problems.
3) As with treatments for physical illnesses, in some of the most severe emotional problems, treatment might be helpful for a while, it might help to alleviate or diminish symptoms for many years and then may stop working or not work well enough. People who have benefited greatly from treatment can still die of heart disease, cancer, kidney failure or severe depression or substance abuse (it may very well be possible that without the treatment he received over the years of his struggles, Williams may have died sooner).
4) So, if you are anxious, down, having trouble managing your emotions or thinking or are using substances in ways that are damaging or dangerous or someone you know is struggling with these types of problems, reach out for help. It will make a difference. If the feelings are very painful, getting worse or lasting for a while, get help.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.