The news of Robin Williams’ death shocked me, yet it didn’t. Many comedians who make us laugh have had dark life circumstances. His passing sparked a nationwide conversation about mental health and depression. But, once the national discussion is over and the press has moved on to another story, what lessons can we learn from the conversation?
Mental health is still very much taboo, despite what appears to be a general acceptance of the issue. In some circles, being depressed is fashionable or a way to garner attention, but mental health is a really serious and complex issue.
I am currently on the board of an organization that is organizing a benefit for a resale shop that employs adults with mental health issues. The founder of Holding Hands started the business to give her daughter, a diagnosed schizophrenic, a respectable job. It gives her a job she can be proud of. Unfortunately, mental health is treated like a cause, rather than a reality. So, why the topic of mental health taboo?
This is because conversations about mental health are uncomfortable, because we don’t understand it. We don’t know what to say, so we don’t say anything. Often mental health goes diagnosed due to people not wanting to talk about it. My aunt was diagnosed with a mental health problem late in her life, and no one in my family spoke of it. We just accommodated for it when she had one of her “spells”. As a child, my mom shielded me from “episodes” and I only saw my aunt when she was doing fine.
One day, I guess I was about 13 or 14, I was the only person home with my aunt and she just didn’t seem “right”. She was rambling on and talking to people who I couldn’t see. I didn’t know what to do, so I hugged her and sang the gospel song she loved to hear me sing in her ear. I called my mom who told me to call the ambulance because it looked like my aunt swallowed a pill and an alcohol concoction. The paramedics and police came and after things calmed down, my aunt stayed in a “special home” for a while before coming back home. Once she came back, no one EVER spoke about it again. No one asked me as a child how I was, having witnessed her “episode”. The entire circumstance was forgotten.
I don’t blame my family for their silence. There is real fear that a loved one will be carted off to a “psych” ward and treated like animals or be stripped of their rights, especially in lower income families. These are families who can’t afford psychiatric care or lawyers. Once someone admits to having a mental illness, they are looked at differently. Their judgement is second guessed. The respect and esteem they had just a minute earlier is now questioned. To avoid all of that, people stay silent.
Silence in mental health can actually kill. You may feel like it is all too much to deal with, but there are simple things you can say (or not say) to show those with mental illness you care. This list is by no means exhaustive or meant to be professional advice, but it is a way to help you feel less afraid and more empowered.
- Snap out of it.
- It’s all in your head.
- You’re crazy.
- You shouldn’t feel this way.
- What’s wrong with you?
- Pull yourself together.
If it were that easy, people would have done it.
Say things like:
- I’m here for you.
- I love you.
- You are important to me.
- Your life matters.
- What can I do now to help?
If you suspect someone is struggling with a mental illness or depression, reach out to them. Educate yourself on the best ways to do that. Check out this national site, www.MentalHealth.gov, or google “mental health” to find services in your area.
Maybe the national conversation about the tragic loss of Robin Williams can be the saving grace for countless others.