We are a judgmental species — especially about topics about which we know little or nothing.
As you almost certainly must know, actor/comedian Robin Williams recently committed suicide. Upon the news of his death, social media Web sites (as well as the mainstream media) were rife with people bemoaning the loss of this beloved celebrity while questioning how it could possibly be that someone who made so many people laugh for so many years could possibly suffer from depression. At lunch last week, I overheard someone comment, “There’s so much to be happy about, and he had lots of money; he should just have looked at the bright side of life.”
Really, I thought. Just how strong is that bond between your ignorance and your insensitivity? Would you tell alcoholics to just not drink? Addicts should just say no? Anorexics should just have a cheeseburger, right? And, of course, people suffering from depression should just cheer up.
Perhaps the ignorant and insensitive should just shut up.
Normally, what I overheard would never have stimulated me to write this blog, because I have run across this very attitude so many times over the years. I’ve know a number of people who have died from illnesses attributable to life-style choices, and have also known a few who attempted suicide including a couple who were successful. So hearing lines like “just cheer up” or “but so-and-so had so much to be happy about” stick in my craw for a very long time, and yet, paradoxically, I have become somewhat inured.
What made me decide to write today’s blog was what happened after it was revealed that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and I heard the same individual mentioned earlier remark a couple of days later, “Well, now killing himself makes sense.” Others in her group agreed, and I heard similar comments from others throughout the day.
Parkinson’s is, to be sure, a terrible, potentially dehumanizing disease for which there is no cure. It can, however, be treated, so that the symptoms and signs are somewhat controllable. Whether or not clinical depression can be cured is somewhat in debate, but often it, too, can be treated so that the sufferer has a better life.
They are both debilitating conditions. But in our culture, mental illness (and that includes depression) is simply not taken as seriously by far too many people as are other illnesses. (I find it disturbing that I know people who dismiss anything other than schizophrenia, psychopathy, and sociopathy as being “valid” mental illnesses.) All too often people view depression as being a matter of choice and that the only thing its sufferers have to do is look at the bright side of life and be happy. As if anytime we felt anything but upbeat, all we need do is sing Bobby McFerrin’s signature song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” What a crock.
My son, Jon, is a psychiatric social worker who I suspect works with depressed patients every working day. While we’ve talked about many things over the years, I don’t recall if suicide was ever a topic. It’s a topic I’d like to know his opinion on considering his vocation, and how he has dealt with it if he’s ever had to work with a suicidal patient. He might be surprised to learn that — for a number of people — I view suicide as a rational option.
There are, of course, strong arguments against suicide. There are also philosophical ones. For various reasons, many (if not most) religions have formal stands against suicide. But of the three most well-known and used religious texts — the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran — only the Quran specifically prohibits suicide:
Chapter 4 Surah, Nisaa verse 29:
29) O ye who believe! eat not up your property
among yourselves in vanities: but let there be
amongst you traffic and trade by mutual good-
will: nor kill yourselves: for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful.
A good argument could be made that the sixth commandment covers suicide (“Thou shalt not kill”/”Thou shalt not commit murder” — depending upon which testament and version one is reading), but some scholars believe that where the first five commandments cover responsibility to God, the rest are concerned with how we should behave with each other, and that the sixth commandment refers to suicide only in interpretation.
(The argument religious leaders — particularly those who are Roman Catholic — often make is that our bodies belong to God and, therefore, suicide is subverting his will. It is interesting to note — interesting to me, anyway — that the same leaders don’t make the same argument against extending the lives of people suffering from debilitating and terminal illnesses. Aren’t those actions preventing God from receiving the soul he’s waiting for?)
As I view all religious writings only as interesting literature (albeit sometimes uplifting, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes silly), I don’t have a horse in the religious interpretation discussions race. As mentioned earlier, sometimes, I believe, suicide is a rational option.
For those suffering from long-term clinical depression, in which instances depression is so severe that the pain of living is palpable and conventional treatment has provided little, if any, relief, I imagine the sufferer views suicide as the only worthwhile escape from the pain. Certainly, it is a solution. If the individual makes clear her/his intention, steps are often taken to prevent suicide taking place. This almost always means hospitalization in a lock-down ward with constant, or near-constant supervision, as various treatments are tried (or re-tried). And if a person fails at an attempt at suicide, and is found, it’s almost a guarantee the individual will end up in the same lock-down ward, only with a new reason to be depressed.
And this is a race in which I have a horse, having known, and dealt with personally, a number of people who have attempted suicide, one of whom was found, hospitalized, and was never the same person again — and the difference was not a good one. I believe the shame of failure, and the resulting treatments combined with living under a microscope, were key in altering the individual’s personality.
For that person, death may well have been the best option to combat the pain of living. But let’s go back to the second comment I overheard and consider it along with this thought: When someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness for which there is no cure, they are often encouraged to begin courses of treatments to extend their lives, if only minimally. If the individual refuses such treatment, the response from both the medical community and family/friends is often understanding acceptance based on the belief that this is a rational, considered decision. We have a stock phrase for how we deal with this: we are allowing the person to “die with dignity.”
I have a horse in this race, as well, having had someone close to me receive a diagnosis of Stage IV cancer with no hope for a cure. The oncologist offered treatment, but no promise of a great extension of time. The patient refused treatment, opting to take whatever time was left, free of medical appointments, drug treatments, and feeling like a burden on loved ones.
How was that decision not a form of suicide? None of us will live forever, and treatment for any condition might extend ones’ lifespan, and even improve the quality of life, but ultimately, we all end the same. Yet, everyone I know involved with this particular case supported the decision not to seek treatment, and allowed for the dignity the individual sought.
Robin Williams suffered from both depression and a devastating diagnosis. That the insensitive person who made the comments cited earlier now accepted (to some degree, anyway) Williams’ decision to end his life because of the diagnosis points more to our failure to understand mental illness, in general, and depression, in particular, than toward anything else.
I regret the loss of Williams’ talent, and my sincere sympathy goes to his loved ones, but he likely made a rational decision given all that he knew and felt. We should accept that and work toward a better understanding of the millions who daily deal with the pain of life. At the very, very least, we should not judge him or anyone else, for decisions made that we don’t agree with, particularly when we don’t know the person at all.
A final thought. During an interview a few years ago, Robin Williams was asked if when he died and found himself in front of pearly gates, and God greeted him, what he wanted God to say. Williams smiled and replied that he would want God to say to him, “Two Jews walk into a bar…”
May he rest in peace.