Robin Williams suicide should spark a national conversation

I did not know Robin Williams personally. I loved his movies and his talent. If I saw him on the street we would probably pass by one another without much more than a “hello.” Yet I see in Robin Williams a kindred spirit. That is because I, like Mr. Williams, suffer from a mental illness. The news media reported that Williams suffered from severe depression. Yet the bigger picture suggested that he had the same burden I carry: bipolar spectrum disorder, characterized by extreme mood swings that affect every person differently. I happen to have been diagnosed with Type Two Bipolar.

I was heartbroken to hear that Robin Williams died by suicide. Suicide has always been a difficult topic. We all have been affected or know someone who has been affected by suicide. When committed by someone who has a mental illness, suicide represents a failure by society to care for one of its own. In fact, one could argue that most suicides are committed by persons with mental illness since self-preservation is generally so engrained into our psyche.

This country is long overdue for a serious national conversation on the treatment of mental illness. Robin Williams’ suicide is just the tip of the iceberg. It seems every week I read stories where police were “forced” to kill someone with a mental illness because they were concerned for their own and the general public safety.

A person who suffers from a major mental illness will die typically 25 years earlier than the national average. Most of our homeless and poor are mentally ill because they suffer from addiction or are unable to hold a decent job. (And figure, too, that if you’re driven to homelessness by life circumstances, a few months on the street will almost certainly leave you in dire mental distress.) People with mental illness are 70 percent more likely to be severely overweight, be addicted to drugs/alcohol, and have debt and money problems well above the national average. These facts are not the end result; they are indications that something is wrong. Addictions, poor lifestyle choices, and bad money management are signals of a person reaching out for help in the tumultuous ocean of chaos that is their mind.        

Not that long ago people with a history of mental illness could be denied coverage for health insurance. Now that the health care laws have changed, private health insurance for the mentally ill is so expensive they cannot afford it. That’s the way the insurance companies want it: Leave the fringes of society to be the government’s and charity’s problems. It is also why many people with mental illnesses choose to try and hide their conditions as best they can. If you were to see me on the street I would look completely normal, yet the storm that rages inside my brain is known only to a very few – my wife and my doctor, that’s it.

Since I was diagnosed at a later age in life, 27, I have been able to hide my status from most of my family, my employers, and even my friends, and for good reason, too. Capitalistic society has no place for the mentally ill. They are too much of a drain on the social system. Like the poor or those who suffer from addictions, they cost the taxpayer and the corporations too much money and should be left to fend for themselves. The political right wing seeks to give the mentally ill a stigma so as to maintain access to their guns and keep gun regulations lax. For someone who suffers the burden of mental illness, it is most distressing to see mental health treatment played out in the political arena. We did not choose this. Mental illness is not something we enjoy.

In the practice of medicine, doctors don’t treat the signs and symptoms of a disease; they treat the underlying cause of a disease. In America the mistreatment and misunderstanding of people with mental illness are signs and symptoms of something wrong. That wrong is the social conditions we live under. It is the way society “does business” in the realm of economics and governance. We must work to make social conditions better, and if we do, then our treatment of the mentally ill would improve.

Socialism seeks to provide better access to health care for all. It uses tax revenue to support social programs instead of an overinflated military budget. Our national discussion needs to include better mental health treatment, but that is not our only goal, nor even an achievable goal under present conditions. The goal is to change America for the better, to give a bright future for all people regardless if they live on the ragged edge of society or not. America needs to “do business better” to support the people, and not rich corporations or right-wing lobbyists.

Photo: Robin Williams. AP