Suicide has been in the media a lot over the last little while due to the very sad passing of Robin Williams. As such a public figure, his death has started a broader conversation about suicide. I do not know his circumstances and so I will not dwell on what lead Mr. Williams to suicide, except to say that clearly a very kind soul has been lost.
Suicide is a touchy subject. A colleague of mine came into my office a few days after Mr. Williams passing to ask how I felt about the whole situation, knowing that I write about mental health and that I deal with a mood disorder myself. We had what I hope was an enlightening conversation about suicide and the publics reaction to it. In this conversation we spoke about suicide as a result of depression.
I told my colleague that the reaction to Mr. Williams suicide, that is, the overwhelming public outpouring of grief and loss, was for me what is known as a trigger. A trigger is a word, phrase, conversation, image or topic of conversation that sets off those non-rational voices in your brain. A trigger is a little seed planted that grows to a twisted jungle of anxiety and mental anguish in an alarmingly short period of time.
The strongest trigger connected to Robin Williams suicide for me was the tweet from The Academy that read, Genie, Youre Free. I saw similar words and images from Aladdin many times over next few days.
While I understand the sentiment behind this poignant phrase, and I understand it was a well-meaning message, it is the wrong message to send to those battling mood disorders.
My first thought at seeing that tweet was, well does that mean I am still trapped? Often, on the hard days, my illness feels like a prison. Trapped is a very good word for the collapsing walls of medication side effects, anxiety, racing thoughts and depression. And if our beloved, kind hearted, but imprisoned Genie is now free, what does that make the rest of us?
The logic follows that frankly, by painting his death as an epic freedom from the end of a childrens movie, the tweet condones suicide. An end to pain is good, freedom is good, and therefore suicide is good?
A depressed brain is not your average brain; depression brains dont follow normal logic. Depression brains draw conclusions from conversations and sentiments that healthy brains just think of as pretty. Drawing the picture of suicide as freedom is a dangerous thing to do.
Suicide is, simply, an extreme negative outcome of a potentially deadly illness. One does not commit suicide, as if it is a crime, one dies from suicide. Glorifying suicide as a legitimate option sends a dangerous message to all those around the world who are touched by the same illness as Robin Williams and who also may feel an affinity with him because of it.
Distilling mental illness down to imprisonment and freedom negates the full and happy lives people with mood disorders can live. Just as importantly, it negates the wisdom and growth that can come from the dark places. In our lives we must live with the light and the darkness. Some of the most powerful moments of my life have come from a place of depression and I would not be who I am today without those moments.
Remembering those who have died from suicide as anything less than strong, complex, full hearted people who simply succumbed to their illness is a disservice to them and to all those who loved them. Suicide has nothing to do with strength or weakness and it has nothing to do with being in a cage or being free. People pass away from old age, from cancer and from depression. We should mourn them all as the same kind of loss; that of a loved one who was ill.