Goodbye Mr. Keating: On Robin Williams and the public’s response to suicide

“My time in the arena made me realize how I need to stop punishing her for something she couldn’t help, specifically the crushing depression she fell into after my father’s death. Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them. – Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire (written by Suzanne Collins)

I’ve always found this quote intriguing. Apparently I’m not the only one.  According to Kindle, it is the most frequently highlighted passage of all time (see 7 things the most highlighted kindle passages tell us about American readers.) When Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide, this quote immediately came to mind.

In the days since we first learned the news, the public response has been quite revealing. Most often, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of compassion and the outreach to others who may be considering suicide, the provision of crisis hotline numbers.  And of course there are the tributes to Mr. Williams. The many wonderful memories he left us.

And then there’s the “suicide is selfish” camp.  I’ve heard some harsh comments that made my blood boil, the cold comments about him “obviously not thinking about his family” and “taking the easy way out”. I know there are many who do not understand depression, so I try to have patience, but I have low tolerance for comments made my people who just don’t understand. Katie Hurley’s article offers a nice rebuttal (There’s nothing selfish about suicide) and I’d like to offer my own as well.

As a clinical psychologist in training, I’m daily asking my clients whether they are considering harming themselves. When I first began training I wondered how open they would be with me, a stranger for whom they were only beginning to build rapport. But they are. When given a safe place, and an objective and hopefully non-judgmental ear to listen, hurting people will often (though not always) open up about past or present feelings about taking their own life, or similar themes like wanting to run away, to escape, to be free. It seems to help, talking about it. And maybe not having someone react with shock or disgust.

Because the truth is, more people than you realize have at least thought about suicide at some point. For people dealing with severe depression or other mental illness, these thoughts can become more frequent. And the deeper they draw in, suicide can become a much more salient choice, while at the same time, the other options for coping seem to disappear. Sadly, for some, they may reach a point where they can see no other way. I hear people talk about those who attempt suicide “not thinking about their families” and I wonder what they would do if they were battling severe depression.  If they had spent months, years living under the metaphorical “dark cloud” of depression, shutting out the sun to the point that you forget that it ever existed. If they had gone so far in that they began to dissociate from themselves, to the point that they didn’t really even know who they were anymore.  It’s agony. It’s unbearable. It’s utterly frightening  And don’t get me wrong, I am not and will not advocate for suicide as a solution, in fact I am trained to work with people to help them find alternatives, but having my own experience with depression in the past I hope I can empathize with those who see no way out. It has nothing to do with “not thinking about your family”. When things get that dark, when those feelings seem permanent and not situational, it can be difficult to recognize your value to your own family at all. Depression deeply affects your identity, you ability to accurately see where you fit in society, even within your own household.

The Catching Fire quote above may be better understood when put this in context. In the first book, The Hunger Games, the strong, tough and proud Katniss has no compassion for her mother.  She’s angry and resentful that after her father died in the mine explosion, her mother slipped into a deep depression, stopped working and stopped providing food, to the point that Katniss and her little sister Prim almost starved. Katniss couldn’t understand then how a mother could ever react that way. But now that she, having survived a brutal Hunger Games, where 24 children from the outlying districts are forced to enter an arena and fight to the death where only one person comes out (orrrrr: SPOILER ALERT:  maybe two), Katniss seems to have a better grasp on incomprehensible pain. And even though her own response to grief wasn’t the same as her mother’s, she is now able to understand that sometimes when people experience events or a situations that feel so overwhelming, they are no longer able to effectively deal with it.

My point in writing is this. I know many of you may have differing opinions on suicide. Whether it’s wrong. Whether it has religious implications, or even whether it is selfish.  I’m not here to tell you what to believe. But I ask you to consider this. First, have you walked in the shoes of the severely depressed? What about those with other severe mental illness?  If so, I really hope you can appreciate the suffering. If you haven’t experienced it, please try to imagine every ounce of joy being sucked out of life, to the point that you can’t remember that joy ever existed.  Then imagine feeling that same feeling day after day after day, for weeks, months, years. Imagine feeling that you are beyond repair, that you are too broken to be of use, imagine feeling without hope.  Imagine that these feelings are not momentary, rather imagine that they are your life.  Once you’ve done that, I would ask you again if you can feel compassion for those who suffer, and maybe even imagine why they might consider ending their life. While I do not believe anyone is too broken to be healed or worthless or truly without hope, I do believe that these FEELINGS and perceptions are very real. And being able to understand why a person might be feeling the way they do can go a long way in helping them.

Second, once we have some compassion, I ask that you open your heart to the people in your circle who may be suffering in private. Are you comfortable reaching out to them?  Are you comfortable being fully present with them, not trying to fix their problems, but just listening. There are indeed very effective treatments for depression. But whether you are a trained professional or not, it always starts with having someone who will listen.  Don’t tell them to “snap out of it”, don’t offer trite suggestions that imply “if you’d just do this, you’ll feel better”.  This will just be perceived as dismissive and entirely unhelpful. Just listen. And if it feels appropriate, tell them why you love them, why you value them. Don’t assume that they know.  Depression steals away all feelings of self-worth. Remind them of why you are glad they are in your life. And while you’re at it, try doing this with everyone you love. Give them specific examples, details of what you appreciate about them. When your world is a big gray cloud, these specific examples can be a little more effective than just saying “I love you.”

Finally, may I request that we stop passing judgement on people so easily. I never met Mr. Williams, but what I’ve learned about him was that he was a brilliant man, with a brilliant mind, who loved his family, adored his children, all the while battling severe depression and addictions for years, decades even.  I don’t know what thoughts haunted him. But I know he suffered for a very long time and he did make attempts at treatment. For whatever reason, he reached a point that he could see no other way. My heart breaks for him and for those who loved him dearly. I so wish this could have ended differently. But for a man who went out of his way to bring joy to others through his movies, through his charity work, through his visits to our troops oversees, I only hope that his unfortunate end can bring about positive change for others.

I can only imagine that Mr. Keating would have liked that.

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