Today I sent my sister a picture of Robin Williams I saw on Twitter. It was a picture a fan had taken with him. I commented to my sister he had sad eyes. She responded by saying it is sad he struggled with depression for so long. She continued by saying sometimes you tire of battling the beast.
The topic of suicide is the focus of many the last few days because of Robin Williams. It is always a focus for me this time of year. August 22 will be 16 years since my mother died by suicide. It is different reflecting this year with so many individuals commenting through facebook, twitter, and the media. Everyone is an expert and everyone has an opinion.
While it is important for this topic to be discussed openly some of the things being said I fear will only increase individuals to remain silent on the subject. When you have a national news reporter calling Robin Williams a coward and only apologizing because of an outcry we have problems with our understanding of suicide.
It seems that we struggle because we try to isolate suicide from the larger conversation of mental illness. Many approach the topic of Robin Williams’ suicide like he randomly woke up one morning and selfishly decided not to live… we jump over the years, decades, he battled depression. We don’t want to imagine what it was like to live with such an illness everyday of our life. We as a society still don’t want to believe or accept that depression is an illness.
In my previous life, or previous career, I was a hospital chaplain as I was completing a year of clinical pastoral education. I worked in a huge hospital and covered many different areas. One area I covered the entire year was oncology. I walked with many individuals as the battled the beast of cancer. I held their hands, celebrated with them, and at times cried with them. I had the honor of experiencing deep courage from individuals fighting for their life. Everyday all day long they decided to fight. There were some that lost the fight. They lost the fight but it was not because they gave up or they were cowards. None of them were selfish, but many of them were tired towards the end. I continue to look up to many of these individuals for the way in which they fought.
These individuals fought in a way I saw many of the clients I counseled as a mental health counselor. I worked with countless individuals struggling with the illness of depression and/or anxiety. Everyday they would fight for freedom from darkness, pain, and suffering. They courageously encountered demons from their past and looked to fears of the future. They each fought their own beast and many times they got tired. They were not selfish in this fight. In fact it was just the opposite. Many were so worried about others that they were not able to focus on their own needs.
So many of these individuals did not tell others of their constant suffering. Maybe they did not want to bother others, but even more they did not want to deal with the responses from others. They did not want to hear that they were selfish for thinking of suicide. They didn’t want to hear that they should just shake it off. They didn’t want to hear that if they just tried harder they could get out of the darkness. They didn’t want to encounter the massiveness of misunderstanding. They needed understanding instead of judgment.
Each person that calls Robin Williams selfish or a coward is encouraging others who are struggling with a real illness to remain silent. We as a society will not make progress on this issue until we choose understanding instead of judgment. It is time we look at those battling the beast of depression with the same compassion as those battling cancer. We will not conquer this battle as a society until we choose to listen instead of speak. We must listen for the pain, hurt, fatigue instead of offering shallow solutions. We must get over our own uneasiness of the subject if are ever going to make progress. We must educate ourselves on mental illness. We must let those who tire of battling the beast have a voice.
My mother did not kill herself because she had one bad day. She battled depression for longer than I probably will ever know. She was not selfish, nor was she a coward. She did not give up. She did tire of battling the beast.