Let’s Get Serious About Mental Illness

williamsRobin Williams’ suicide this week shook up people across the political spectrum — and for good reason. When a highly successful, incredibly popular figure from our culture decides to take his own life, it feels as though suicide could happen to anyone.

It can’t.

Robin Williams reportedly suffered from mentally illness. He stated during an interview in 2006 that he hadn’t been formally diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, but stated, “Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.” He added, “I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, ‘Whoa.’ Other moments you look and go, ‘Oh, things are OK.'” That same year, according to the Huffington Post, he explained the temptation of alcoholism — he had famously admitted to drug and alcohol addiction problems — to Diane Sawyer. “It’s the same voice thought that … you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump.'”

Williams’ death has spurred multiple writers and celebrities to announce their own struggles with such issues; virtually every family has suffered through the horrors of mental illness. My grandfather was diagnosed with bipolar disorder decades ago, and routinely battled suicidality until his introduction to lithium.

Raising awareness is praiseworthy – the stigma attached to getting help for mental illness should be wiped away as soon as possible.

By the same token, we ought to ensure that normalizing mental illness helps no one, and damages those who truly are mentally ill. The lack of awareness surrounding mental illness comes from two directions: first, those who pretend that mental illness represents a lack of willpower or dedication; second, those who pretend that serious mental illnesses are not mental illnesses at all, but representations of free thought and behavior.

Forty years ago, the first group predominated; today, the second does.

Forty years ago, men and women feared career destruction should rumors spread that they were seeing psychologists or psychiatrists. That fear has largely dissipated. But a new threat to the well-being of those suffering from mental illness has replaced the original threat: the threat of diversity campaigners leaving those with mental illness to suffer in the name of heterogeneity.

This is not to suggest that all of those who are “different” are mentally ill, or vice versa. But it is meant to suggest that we ought to consider the mental health of those who are homeless, rather than labeling them, in blanket fashion, advocates for free living spaces. It is meant to suggest that those who suffer from gender dysphoria may not be suffering from societal bigotry, but from something far deeper and more dangerous, and that physical mutilation and stumping for tolerance will not solve their problems.

In other words, if we are to recognize the importance of mental illness as a society, the left must stop papering over mental illness with platitudes about diversity, and the right must stop treating mental illness as a moral problem rather than a medical one. Those racked with mental anguish are crying out for our help. If we don’t hear them, it may be because too busy pushing political viewpoints rather than listening.

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  • DaCoachK

    Expect the Left-Wing-Kooks to castigate you because you used the word “diversity” in a less-than-100%-positive manner, which is the original sin in contemporary Left-Wing-Nut-America.

  • Texas Patriot

    The concept of “mental illness” is vastly overrated and more often than not represents an excuse for doctors to prescribe very expensive (and lucrative) long-term medications and therapies for their patients that don’t really help very much. As Sigmund Freud said, the key indicia of mental health are love and work, and it is clear that Robin Williams had a great capacity for both.

    However, like all great artists, Robin Williams saw things more clearly and felt things more acutely than most of the rest of us, and in the end the pain was too much for him, and as a result, the world lost a great soul and a great human being. My deepest condolences to his family who are no doubt grief-stricken to the core like many of the rest of us at this extremely tragic turn of events.

    Unfortunately, at this point in time, the world is descending into a level of general chaos and human misery perhaps not seen for many hundreds of years, and being able to accept and adjust to that truth and to continue to seek and maintain the all-important qualities of love and work in our lives will probably be a great challenge for all of us.

    • http://www.clarespark.com/ Clare Spark

      You are reading Freud selectively. He asked his patients and the world to adjust to “everyday unhappiness,” as civilization sits very lightly on human beings. See http://clarespark.com/2013/03/10/what-remains-useful-about-freud/, “What remains useful about Freud.”

      • Texas Patriot

        There are more than two million Americans in prison, and countless millions more are on medication with no end in sight. Physicians are routinely prescribing Ritalin to hyperactive young boys who find the traditional classroom environment stifling and suffocating. When are we going to realize that we’ve taken a huge detour into No Man’s Land with our fixation on false notions of mental illness. Freud was right that love and work are the keys to happiness and health. And at the end of his long life and brilliant career in medicine, Dr. Michael DeBakey came to this conclusion as the sum total of his wisdom and experience: “Man was born to work hard.” There is no other formula for happiness than truth, love, and hard work, and the sooner we realize that, the better.

    • carltjohnson

      Restating the headline, could of easily said that Mental illness pervades politics and most ideologies, but depression I would call a condition not an illness or mental dysfunction. Robin will be sorely missed.

      • Texas Patriot

        carltjohnson: Restating the headline, could of easily said that Mental illness pervades politics and most ideologies, but depression I would call a condition not an illness or mental dysfunction. Robin will be sorely missed.

        Exactly. The profound levels of ignorance, stupidity, nihilism, and inhumanity in politics and political ideology that the world has witnessed over the last 100 years, beginning with WWI and continuing almost nonstop up to and including the nightmares we are seeing in Syria and Iraq today represent some of the worst manifestations of “mental illness” in the history of the world.

        Unfortunately, not even America has been immune, and the nation that Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth” is now a shadow of her former self, with the last fifty years being the worst. Beginning with the assassination of John Kennedy, the defeat of Barry Goldwater, the election of Lyndon Johnson, the madness and nightmares of Watts and Vietnam, the intentional destruction of our national educational system, the profound deterioration of our national health and physical fitness, the loss of millions of jobs and entire industries to foreign competition, our skyrocketing national crime rate, our endless, hopeless, and hugely expensive foreign wars, our permanent negative trade balances, our endless deficit spending, and our record-breaking national debt, we’ve seen enough ignorance and stupidity in American politics to make us all clinically depressed.

        But instead of giving in to the madness, we need to fight it. And instead of losing the war, we need to win it. Ignorance, stupidity, nihilism, and inhumanity aren’t just an “illness”, they’re the deadly enemies of humanity, and they need to be defeated, at home and abroad, if America is to have any hope of surviving and thriving in the dangerous and highly competitive world of the 21st Century and beyond.

  • wileyvet

    At the risk of giving too much information about myself, here goes. I have personally gone through two bouts of depression. The first when I was still in my late 20s and went to group therapy. It helped. The second was during and after a period of alcohol and cocaine addiction in my early thirties. The suicidal tendencies that result from a coke downer are tremendous. I sobered up, quit the drugs and have spent the last fifteen years trying to redeem myself. The second bout of depression resulted in a bi polar workshop, and learned more about what it is, how to recognize its onset, and how to channel your life in ways that overcome it. I only briefly took antidepressant medication. It can be scary as hell, feeling no enthusiasm for life, and the darkness that seems to envelope you. Obviously, mental illness runs through the whole continuum, so perhaps I did not have it as bad as others. Yet when it is upon you, one does not see it that way. It is only about what is happening to you, now. I know what I would have missed out on, and the good people that I would have left behind had I succeeded in suicide. I have lived to see some wonderful things happen in the intervening years, and though my life is not where I imagined it would be today, I take solace in that I overcame harsh addiction, chose to live and face my demons and try to make every day count, with my family and friends. I have two little nieces that I have watched grow from babies, and that is a true delight. I am here today, because I sought help before matters became worse and I can only urge those that find themselves in this state to do likewise. I also recommend intense physical activity to counter the gloomy feelings when they arise.

  • Dyer’s Eve

    Forget the usual crap. Vale, Robin Williams. Say goodbye to a man who knew how to make us laugh, but also knew how to make us feel. I’ll share a comment I posted in The Age in Melbourne: “Some artists dig down very deep to express. Sometimes it is a lonely place in which you can’t take anyone with you. You may also find things that are frightening”. Robin Williams was one of those artists. He knew. He knows.

  • El Cid

    Ben, the “flip” side of your argument is that of Thomas Szasz (may he rest in peace), who wrote the tome “The Myth of Mental Illness”. It is not evident that modern medicine has the correct paradigm to address this complex issue.

    Certainly, the drug industry in relation to psychiatry is highly suspect since there is hardly a single substance in their pharmacopoeia for which these “scientists” actually understand the mechanism behind the impact on the patient.

    A recent development (40 or 50 years?) is the growing body of knowledge around “mindfulness” which brings the knowledge and experience of Buddhism into a Western context along with the power of meditation. Perhaps this skill could be taught to children in school to enable life long health and contentment.

    • patgo

      Buddhist-style meditation is also not the answer. It is a spiritual trap that may have far more horrendous consequences than suicide.

  • Frances John

    Robin Williams on German TV:

    German Interviewer: Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?

    Williams: Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?

    • Americana

      He was deadly w/his one-liners. Laser-targeting all the time…

      The fact Robin Williams had just been diagnosed w/Parkinson’s must have been devastating for such a physical comedian. He seemed to me like a reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin in his physical comedy. He’d had a couple of flops this past year but he also was looking forward to some new work that could have really refreshed his work life. ((My personal tribute to the man will be revisiting all his YouTube videos and his movies.))

  • Giles Blyzzard

    Actually, suicide can happen to anyone because mental illness can happen to anyone. Mental illness is a physical illness caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Sometimes they are caused by alcoholism or drug addiction in which case they are self-induced, But it can also be caused by a malfunctioning thyroid, a neurotransmitter problem, or a host of other physical ailments or head injuries.

    • patgo

      Sorry, but mental illness is not the result of a Zoloft deficiency. IF there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, it is not due to lack of taking poisons. It is much more likely to be caused by TAKING them. SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) endanger us ALL. I don’t want someone taking them, and then entering a theater with a gun. You are absolutely right that mental illness can be caused by alcoholism or drugs, and also that it can be caused by a malfunctioning thyroid or a head injury. But your language saying that it is caused by chemical imbalances is the very same language doctors use when pushing dangerous drugs off on their patients. Be careful how you describe the problem!

      • Giles Blyzzard

        I don’t recall seeing the word Zoloft in my post. Nor did I endorse any specific treatment, I merely stated that depression is caused by abnormal brain chemistry. My choice of treatment would be to try to find out the reason for the chemical imbalance and then treat it. Be careful what you infer from someone’s post.

        • patgo

          I will need to give you some brief background. The medical profession talks about depression being caused by abnormal brain chemistry. But what they mean by finding the reason for the chemical imbalance and then treat it is to give deadly drugs. They probably don’t mean what I imagine you mean. Yes, if the adrenal glands are not making enough gamma linolenic acid, there is probably a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it can cause problems. But the solution is to stop eating monosodium glutamate and take supplementary GLA, not Zoloft (which is supposed to increase serotonin, a pleasure hormone.) Zoloft and other SSRIs actually make depression worse, and can cause some people to become suicidal or homicidal, hence, my comment. In fact, nearly all the public shootings (school, theater, etc.) have been done by people who were either taking the drugs at the time, or had taken them recently. This has been documented on NaturalNews.

          Can it happen to anyone? Sure. Anyone can decide to eat a lot of food with MSG in it. But the medical profession makes things worse, and the way I read your post, you were advocating letting them deal with it. I don’t think I was inferring anything that wasn’t there to jump to the conclusion you think the medical profession can fix it with drugs. Am I right?

          This is why articles like this scare the heck out of me. Not only are they tacitly advocating deadly drugs, but they also form a basis for practices that are commonly used to remove political dissenters from society, so they cannot influence the public.

    • bigjulie

      You left out the most potent and pervasive…LIBERALISM!!

      • Ginger Li

        Absolutely! I agree with Savage in calling liberalism a mental disorder. It says abnormal, morally crushing behaviors are ‘normal’. In a way, they are like a drug that one becomes addicted to and which are persistently held despite the damage they do and facts confirming that they are personally damaging.

        The amazing thing is that those types, even realizing the damage done, don’t try to save others from it but instead advocate for and lure others to their view they’ve invested so much of themselves in. It’s vindicating. Misery loves company!

        Liberalism is a road easily taken and, while difficult, takes moral courage to get off of. And the benefit is renewed mental health!

    • Flicker

      Are psychopathy an sociopathy “chemical imbalances”? They’re dysfunctions of the conscience. Where does the conscience come from? And what drugs treat it, and how?

  • http://www.stubbornthings.org NAHALKIDES

    “the left must stop papering over mental illness with platitudes about
    diversity, and the right must stop treating mental illness as a moral
    problem rather than a medical one.”

    I think we can agree on the first, but I’d have to say the second assertion is a bit dubious. It smacks of the “Conservatives are heartless” stereotype adhered to by the Left. I think the majority of Conservatives recognize mental illness as an illness, although we may have our doubts about the efficacy of psychology as a science.

    • nightspore

      Yes, if I didn’t know better, I’d almost call it “politically correct”.

    • WW4

      Not sure why Shapiro needed to bring politics into a discussion of this particular topic, anyway. People from both sides hold both views, more or less. There’s a whole spectrum of perspectives on this issue, an issue even the experts acknowledge they don’t really know much about.

  • patgo

    I think this is a really dangerous article! Psychiatry is a religion, not medical science. Psychiatrists routinely terrorize or coerce people into taking poisons, some of which can MAKE people suicidal or homicidal. Paying more attention to mental illness MAY mean forcing more people to submit to psychiatry. Mental hospitals funded by the government imprison people for thought crimes. They are a violation of the Constitution.

    Many mental problems are really reactions to poisonous substances in the body, which can include pharmaceuticals, monosodium glutimate (prevalent in food as an additive) and even possibly artificial sweeteners. I discovered MSG can cause panic attacks. What other problems can it cause? Tyrannical governments often use mental hospitals as a method of silencing dissenters.

    In addition, the widespread acceptance of self-destructive behavior, along with the push to legalize that behavior, contributes to many people engaging in behavior that will lead to mental illness. Your article does nothing to address these issues.

    You need to think about these issues seriously instead of just giving psychiatry and psychology a blanket endorsement. These fraudulent professions are making matters much, much worse, and we need to point people toward righteous behavior as the best antidote, with keeping poisons out of the body a close second.

    Even our government is complicit in poisoning us, by assuring us poisons are safe instead of banning them. Please think long and hard about this. Don’t use a tragic death to promote forcing more people into dangerous non-solutions!

    • Flicker

      And the DSM-IV is a screwy bible of sorts.

      • patgo

        Oh, I agree. All the DSM are totally off the wall. They’re how the field is manipulated to make victims out of most of us.

  • Erudite Mavin

    Good commentary Ben.
    William’s Bi Polar was out front but he did not want to believe he had this illness.
    The fast pace talking and all over the map, the movements on stage, His Highs – drinking, drugs, and then the Depression the Lows.
    The typical signs of Bi Polar but he probably thought taking medication which
    can balance you in general would take him off his High fast pace humor.
    A high price to pay.
    When the subject of mental illness is brought up as on these sites, the uneducated on this subject embarrass themselves.

    Depression is an illness just as Diabetes (an unbalance in your body)
    Neurotransmitters in the brain are not traveling correctly (an unbalance in your body, the brain) and medication can change this so you can function in
    your daily life.

    • Flicker

      Unless it’s a reactive depression, or a chronic depression growing out of a long-standing reactive depression. And remember neuro-transmitters are the affected mechanism for depression and for addiction to drugs and alcohol. The “right” drug only replaces the alcohol. And on top of that SSRIs are one of the most destructive over-prescribed medicines today.
      No, depression is not just like diabetes. In fact diabetes is not like diabetes. You have metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and reduced insuling production, and suppressed secretion.

  • gidster

    Robin Williams had a rational reason to take his own life. He saw he was on the way to a dreadful progressive disease with no hope of cure.
    Too many middle aged to older men are committing suicide, some for rational reasons.
    There is a problem with psychiatry that other medical fields don’t have. If you lack the ability to produce insulin, a doctor can tell you have diabetes. On the other hand, if you believe (for example) that Obama is a Marxist, some would say you are mentally ill.
    I was diagnosed as paranoid because I believed (and still do) that there was a compromising movie of me loose in some universities. Whether true or not, it was never investigated, it was just taken as proof that I had a disease of the brain.

    • Flicker

      No, no, no, no, NO. Parkinsonism takes a decade of more. I knew a man well who had it for a good fifteen years. And he never lost his mind, even if he lost his balance. He even worked for most of that time — sort of like Steven Hawking. The biggest problem for him was the stigma of those who didn’t know the disease and assumed the worst about him and about the disease’s progression.

  • Pepe Turcon

    Don’t try to dilute reality. What my dear friend Robin had was pure alcoholism and what you saw in him are the symptoms of alcoholism. I attended several AA meetings with him in San Francisco and Miami. Problem is as with many alcoholic is to think NOT drinking is the solution when it is NOT. Alcoholics need to recover following daily and deeply the 12 steps of the program. Robin was only hanging in there and actually he should have taken a few drinks, probably he wouldn’t have killed himself. You see, the “medicine” for Alcoholism is alcohol (but not the cure).
    Only a true Spiritual awakening through the steps can give you that.
    Actually most people are “functional” alcoholics as they scape via materialism, sex,etc,etc….

  • WW4

    “…the threat of diversity campaigners leaving those with mental illness to suffer in the name of heterogeneity.

    This is not to suggest that all of those who are “different” are mentally ill, or vice versa. But it is meant to suggest that we ought to consider the mental health of those who are homeless, rather than labeling them, in blanket fashion, advocates for free living spaces.”

    Who does this? I see the point about gender dysphoria but that is merely one in a range of mental illnesses. The homeless as “advocates for free living spaces?” Does anyone who matters actually say this? I’ve never heard anyone espouse a “diversity” argument for people who were schizophrenic, bipolar, etc.

  • Texas Patriot

    Hang in there, WV. Life is a foxhole and we’re all constantly under fire from enemies seen and unseen, known and unknown. No one said it would be easy, and it’s not. There will be gray days, dark days, and totally black days. But the ultimate victory is worth it, and the longer we fight, the stronger we get. As Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up!”

  • Gloria Stewart

    I have no doubt that a good portion of the homeless are mentally ill by any definition. But where to go from there? If you suggest that they be confined against their will in an institution absent a criminal predicate, do you realize the Pandora’s box you are opening?
    A government bureaucracy would come into place to deal with this new situation.The next step would be to define mental illness downward until it lapped at the edges of Political Correctness.
    Before the collapse of the Soviet Union political dissidents were dealt with, as a rule, by having their political activities classified as mental illnesses. They were incarcerated for their own good, of course, and for the good of the USSR.
    This may seem far fetched, but look at the abuses of power President Obama has engaged in. If six years ago I had predicted them would you have believed me?
    Gloria Stewart

    • Flicker

      A couple of decades ago I would have supported the confining of those who are completely unable to care for themselves, and not all homeless, or even the mentally-ill homeless, are in that category. But with today’s NSA snooping and poisoned tyrannical atmosphere I can’t trust anyone in government to do the right thing for the right reason. You can get indicted by the governmetn in Canada for quoting the Bible, and indicted in Texas for vetoing a bill.
      And yes, I do fear psycho-prisons for dissidents and for the un-PC.
      And forget getting a gun license once you’ve been declared anti-social.

  • Digli

    I had Cancer.
    I had Chemo and radiation therapy.
    The Cancer is completely gone.
    I had depression at a different time that was completely unrelated to the Cancer and the depression was very close to being as bad as the Cancer and the Cancer treatments.
    Depression is not some kind of mental issue that you can just suck up and get over.
    It’s a very real physical issue with mental symptoms.
    I met Robin Williams a few times and I liked him a lot but I never really liked his movies. Honestly? They weren’t happy movies and I like happy movies.
    Dead Poets, Good Will Hunting….even Mrs Doubtfire wasn’t that happy.
    The Fisher King was a seriously depressing movie. It was an amazing movie but seriously depressing.
    Robin was funny but a lot of the time I wanted to tell him to just “Sit down and shut the f**k up”
    That would make him laugh.

  • Alleged Comment

    Sorry Ben, don’t believe in mental illness. Labels means things on sale.

    Robin just didn’t want to deal with losing anymore or the prospect of losing. Most all suicides are like that. Nothing to do with a mental illness, if there is such a thing.

    I never heard of a winner taking 1st place then committing suicide, have you?

  • Flicker

    “Robin Williams reportedly suffered from mentally [sic] illness.” I’m guessing what happened here, but it looks like you changed ‘was mentally ill’ to ‘suffered from mental illness’. (Is that going from the active to the passive voice?) If that’s the case I can understand, but it seems to me that we all are allowed to say someone has ‘has a mental illness’, or even ‘has mental illness’ or certainly ‘suffers from…” but saying they ‘are mentally ill’ is rude and may be a little too judgmental.

    Personally, I wouldn’t say I eat too much, but I certainly have suffered from over-eating for years.

  • http://roynelsonhealing.com/ Roy Nelson

    Robin was an incredibly gifted performer and brought unending joy and laughter to this world for many decades. How tragic that he struggled to find that joy within himself. No addict is a stranger to darkness and depression
    and Robin’s death is a painful reminder of this fact. I am so sorry he was
    not able to find the help and hope he needed to overcome his pain. I wish
    his family peace and healing.

    As an addiction survivor myself I have known the feeling of hopelessness.
    Through my 30 years of struggle I have “cracked the code” and
    learned to help other suffers tap into the underlying cause of what torments
    them and rebuild with a new outlook on life. It is only then that one
    can be free of addiction. As addicts will do even if they are
    sober for 20 years, as Robin at one point was, they will trade
    off addiction and obsessions in order to cope with the deep, soulful
    turmoil that plagues them if they never address it head on.

    It is my true hope that this tragic scenario will turn positive
    by creating a forum for people to openly talk about these issues and to seek

    “Love Notes From Hell: Stories of Hopeless Addiction, Obsessions and
    Recovery” due October 14, 2014.