News of the death of actor/comedian Robin Williams August 11 from apparent suicide strikes particularly hard. Williams was frank about his struggles with mental illness and addiction, and discussed them openly and with characteristic humor ("I went to rehab in wine country to keep my options open" is a classic).
There was a period in the early 1990s when movies starring Robin Williams had become the watch list of my kids' lives: Hook, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji. All sparkle with elements of his manic humor, his imploring smile, and his deeply sad eyes.
But the Williams moment that rings most clearly for me is the scene from 1989's Dead Poets Society, reborn recently with Apple's iPad Air ad campaign
"We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"
"Poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for... You are here...life exists, and identity... The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"
We are told that one in four people will suffer from some diagnosable mental illness. We are told that 90 percent of persons who complete suicide have some form of mental illness. We are told that those with serious mental illness have life expectancy 10 years less than average. The tide is turning on conversations and stigma about mental illness, but too slowly. Fear and denial keep too many from seeking help. There are still ignorant haters with popular soapboxes, perpetuating myths about mental illness and suicide.
Celebrity deaths, whether from mental illness, addictions, or recklessness, are always a double-edged sword with young people. On the one hand, there is a fear that young people will be more likely to follow their tragic idols. On the other, it opens a door to conversations. If there could be such a thing as a best-case scenario with a celebrity suicide, Robin Williams' may be it. He is famous enough, has been around long enough, and has appealed to generations of kids enough that anyone older than 7 is going to recognize his face, voice or characters. On the other hand, he is not the kind of celebrity whom young people will like likely emulate or idolize. Robin Williams is not Kurt Cobain.
Just as with so-called "physical" illnesses, not all mental illnesses are deadly, but some are. Mental health counselors identify three mental illnesses that are potentially deadly: addiction, eating disorders and depression. However, people are generally more comfortable talking about diabetes, heart disease, even cancer, than about mental illnesses. Any opportunity to make mental illnesses less dark, less mysterious, to shed light on these all-too-common afflictions, is an opportunity for teaching and, in some cases, early identification and intervention.
So, what's a parent to do when a child says "Mrs. Doubtfire is dead" or "Peter Pan killed himself"? There's no one, best answer. Understand that children are by nature both curious and resilient. Answering the question to the best of your ability is OK; deflecting or ignoring it drives the subject further into the darkness, where it can take on all sorts of misunderstanding. This Mom wrote about how she talked with her kids, relating to his characters and other family experience. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers a few tips for talking to kids about suicide. SAVE.org offers more help. The Jason Foundation website has information for teens, parents and schools.
Many families find comfort in speaking to pastors or other faith-based counselors. Your school may have a counselor you can speak to. The mental health agencies in the Tri-County network of care employ counselors who specialize in youth and family. NAMI of Darke, Miami and Shelby Counties has upcoming classes you may find useful. For someone in crisis, the Tri-County Hotline is open 24 hours a day at 800-351-7347, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255).
Every suicide is a tragedy. Celebrity amplifies the tragedy, and when the celebrity is someone with the multi-generational reach and appeal of Robin Williams, someone whose voice will continue to be heard through the timeless characters of his films, the loss is proportionally deep. If his illness and death create opportunities for a deeper understanding of mental disorders, then that is the solace we can take from it.
“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.” - Robin Williams as Patch Adams