Having a mental illness is very lonely. It is an illness of silence. Those who suffer from it often hide it very well. And few will forwardly admit that they have it. The greatest fear of many who suffer from a mental illness is not necessarily our internal struggles, but our outward fear of being found out. There are very few illnesses that we are so afraid to talk about than mental illness. And yet, so much of the healing process for mental health is to talk about it, to outwardly deal with it, and to share it with our friends and family who form the backbone to our recovery.
Mental illness is not just an issue when a famous person dies because of it. For those with mental illness, it is an everyday struggle, a mode of management that we learn to live and deal with. And every death from mental illness is a tragedy just as every death from cancer is a tragedy. The death of Robin Williams is a tragedy.
It is a tragedy because our silence as a society has exacerbated the shame and humiliation of having a mental illness. And it is this shame that festers an internal attack on ourselves for being weak, flawed, and abnormal. Those with mental illness try their hardest to live their lives as that “normal” person you know of them, even when it is a fight to do it, every single day of their lives.
When you have a mental illness, it is not unlike a virus that attacks the body’s defenses. In fact, it is the brain that through whatever change or maladjusted pathway begins to attack normal modes of thought and perception.
Mental illness is therefore not logical. Having depression or an anxiety disorder (or any other mental health condition) isn’t about being sad when things go wrong, but when things go right. Having an anxiety disorder, for example, makes you fear things that aren’t going to hurt you. That’s what mental illness is like. It is not logical. It breaks how we see the world. And it forces us to see it instead through a fragmented lens. And after long enough through this lens, you forget what it felt like before it.
After long, you start to believe that the depression, the fear, the incessant self deprecation is simply you. And although you may wish to tell someone that it hurts too much to wake up sometimes, you never do. Because you know to many, this just simply won’t make sense. That is why many have asked, “How could someone so bright and successful as Robin Williams take his own life?” Incredulous.
Just as cancer ravages your body so that it can no longer sustain itself, so too can the brain be so sick that it ceases to sustain itself. When you suffer from a mental illness, you do not choose your state of mind, your illness does.
There have been comments in social media that suicide due to mental illness is selfish. That the person ending their own life is ending their own suffering without any heed to those they leave behind. And it is weakness and selfishness that would lead one to take their own life. With this, I ask, who wakes up each morning wishing to end their own life? The will to live is the single driving force in life. Every motive, every desire, every earnest plot and plan in human existence has been to prolong life. It has never been to end it.
So until we can openly embrace mental illness as a condition of human nature, not any different from a broken bone, a heart disease, a cancer, or a virus, we will continue to mourn the tragedy of so many who struggle every day with the loneliest illness of our times.
A fantastic TEDx talk by a young Vancouverite and his life with depression.