Four days after the devastating news of Robin Williams’ suicide, I’m still feeling the loss of someone I never even knew personally. Perhaps it’s because his genius acting work has been a part of my life pretty much ever since I can remember (oh, yes, I was watching when he first hit the airwaves with “Mork and Mindy”). I can mark important times in my life with what movie he was doing at the time; for instance, my husband and I saw “Aladdin” on our first date nearly 22 years ago. Even now, our family quotes from that movie.
But another part of the reason this event has affected me so deeply is that it strikes close to home. I started this blog to write, in part, about mental illness, to just put my own experience out there. And Williams’ death has had me thinking a great deal in relation to how I can understand it and how I want to be able to continue to share my feelings with others. There have been some poignant tributes and some spot-on blog posts and articles about suicide, about depression, about the almighty struggle some experience with their mental health. I don’t think I can do any better, but I can just share my viewpoint.
Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a study focusing on cognitive issues in women who have breast cancer (I was part of the control group). I was happy to do my part for science, even if I had to drive a few hours away to get to Stanford University. Since the study is looking at cognitive effects of cancer or the treatment for it, it included questions and assessments not only about impairment of cognitive processes overall but also about emotional status. Since I had indicated on the questionnaires and intake forms that I take medication for depression, the researcher who worked with me asked me at the end of our time a little bit about my feelings and opinions on it. She said she focuses on psychology and has noticed in her time studying it that there are still not nearly enough treatments available for depression and other mental illnesses. Some people in the blogosphere and media have wondered why Williams, for example, didn’t just “get help.”
Here’s the sad truth: there isn’t nearly enough adequate “help” out there, whether it’s in the form of medications and other medical interventions and treatments or it’s in the form of professionals and non-professionals who really are good at what they do and can give superior guidance.
There is still an epic shortage (in my experience and opinion) in the number of qualified professionals who can treat people from all economic and health-care-coverage situations. This is particularly true in the case of the number of doctors or other practitioners who specialize in and are licensed to provide medications. In my experience, for instance, there are three psychiatrists covered by my health insurance (which might also be the total of all the psychiatrists in my city), and only one is taking new patients. That one I didn’t particularly like, and it’s crucial to have a certain level of rapport with someone who’s treating you for your brain chemistry. So I was lucky enough to hear about another provider who ended up being a better fit for me, but her office is an hour’s drive from my home, and her practice is not covered by my insurance. I am also lucky enough to be able to afford paying out of pocket for her care. But what about those who don’t have insurance at all, who can’t afford out-of-pocket costs, who don’t have access to transportation, etc.? There are a LOT of people not being served.
Then we move on to the issue of actual treatments available, even when one has unlimited access to doctors, therapists, and whatever medical intervention is available. And as the researcher and I discussed a few weeks ago, there are far too few options. I’m on an antidepressant that’s worked well enough for me the past couple of years to get me to where I can cope adequately with life’s challenges without being taken down completely. But there have been times medications weren’t doing enough for me, and it was hard.
There have been at least the number of times I can count on one hand, and possibly up to two hands, moments I’ve been in the blackest and deepest abyss and felt suicidal, even if it was only briefly. And I could go on and on about how if you haven’t been there, you can’t possibly know what it’s like. Logically, in a part of my brain, I knew I didn’t want to hurt my loved ones, didn’t want to deprive them of me. (That’s addressing the “selfish act” observation…) But it was a very distant part of my brain and one that was clouded over by the overwhelming despair and hopelessness of my feelings. As I’ve written before, it’s those times and others that I now feel my brain chemistry betrayed me. And it’s a very weird, unnerving feeling to have your brain working against itself and yourself. Even though I could logically call to mind times I enjoyed life and felt fulfilled and useful and vital and important to others, to the world, I just didn’t FEEL it. And it became impossible to imagine or believe I would feel that way again.
No amount of love and support and encouraging words from others (assuming the best, that one does have that kind of support system — believe me, there are plenty who don’t have that, making things even worse) can make that feeling go away. If your brain chemistry is off, it’s off. And that’s why we absolutely MUST find more options to treat that chemistry. There are far too few options now.
I appreciated this one article on Mashable, for example, that asserted, “Finally, We’re Talking About Mental Illness Like Adults.” People have generally been very thoughtful this week as they’ve discussed Williams. I sincerely and strongly hope that this discussion can continue, that a few important good things may come from this tragedy: 1) Let’s stamp out the stigma for good. Let’s work towards a culture in which people who experience any kind of mental illness can talk openly about it without fear of being judged or misunderstood or mistreated. Let’s make it as easy to talk about as any other illness that’s more “physical.” 2) We need to push for more research into more varied medications. There are a number of drugs out there (but not nearly enough) that are made for the treatment of mental illnesses, but a lot of them are similar to each other and work the same way. Pharmaceutical companies need to branch out and work on far more kinds of medications that attack mental illnesses in different ways, from different directions, etc. 3) We need more doctors. We need more prescribing practitioners available everywhere to everyone. This will not only be the kind thing to do, but one that will contribute to reducing many other existing societal problems: homelessness, joblessness, some violent crimes.
These aren’t easily attainable goals. But we certainly need to work towards them. It will make a world of difference to millions.