Robin Williams Was Sick, Not Selfish: On Suicide and Mental Illness

Suicide has hit our small Oregon community hard in the last few weeks. Jennifer Huston disappeared at the end of July. She was found days later, after a several-state search, dead by suicide, leaving behind a bewildered and grieving family, including her young kids who will grow up now without their mama. 

Our community is left mourning and confused, which is natural, I think. Normal. Important, even, as we come together and work to love each other well. To reach out. To provide comfort. And in the midst of our bafflement, I hear people saying over and over they wish Jennifer had known she had a community. They wish she’d known she had friends. They wish she’d known she wasn’t alone. And yet, from everything I gather, she had those people in her life. People who loved her. People whom she loved. People who would’ve fought to try to save her had they but known her struggle. 

And now Robin Williams is gone. By all accounts, due to probable suicide.

I’ve suffered from depression. It’s my constant companion still. And I’ve found it difficult to forgive myself for the losses my illness and I inflicted on my family. For the ways I couldn’t find out of the Darkness. For the day I sat in the bathroom, staring at the anti-depressant pills that weren’t working and wondering if there was another way I could be free from the relentless sensation of drowning. Dead already, I thought. Lost to myself utterly.

And although the wondering is the closest I came to suicide, walking instead the long, slow road back to hope, I learned some things in that bathroom, and some things since, in my research on depression. 

I’ve often heard it said that suicide is the most selfish of acts. It’s popular to think so, as though being more selfless is a cure for depression. A cure for brain chemistry gone wrong. But that’s simply, totally, completely untrue. 

If, in fact, Robin Williams did die due to suicide, he did not die because he was mortally selfish.

Nor did Jennifer die because she lacked community.

And although an extraordinarily simplistic case can be made for it, neither of them died because they gave up or gave in. Or from lack of strength. Or from lack of willpower. 

No; Robin Williams and Jennifer Huston died from illness. Mental illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. They died from being very, very sick, a symptom of which is having a brain that is utterly incapable of making the logical, lifesaving choice to live any longer. 

My friend Marie wrote, “From the outside, it is difficult to see, and impossible to feel, the crushing weight of Darkness. We wouldn’t judge someone who was being crushed by a bus and isn’t able to extricate himself from the situation.” And she’s right, absolutely.

In the wake of Jennifer’s and Robin’s deaths, the best thing we can do in their memory is educate ourselves on the many signs of depression. The many signs of mental illness. And to bravely butt in when we suspect our people are suffering.

Listen. Depression does not always look like sadness. Depression does not always look like numbness. And depression often comes in disguise. Disguised as anger. Disguised as physical pain. Disguised as an inability to function. Disguised as isolation. Be on the lookout, friends. For yourself and for each other.

There is treatment. There is hope.

At the same time, we also must acknowledge we cannot save everyone. And we must not blame ourselves for those we couldn’t save. Which is, perhaps, the hardest job of all.

……….

Good Places to Begin Learning about Suicide Prevention and Treatment for Mental Illness:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Signs of Clinical Depression
Warning Signs of Mental Illness

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
29 comments
  1. […] depression I appreciated her healthy and realistic perspective. She challenges us to realize that Robin Williams was Sick not Selfish. I know this post may challenge your perspective but I hope you see it as an invitation to […]

  2. I don’t know if this will help anyone, but I have gone to AA meetings and addiction meetings and self-help meetings. For myself and for others, I have gone to these meetings for years. I am a college graduate and a Navy veteran as a SAR Diver. I can’t fathom the idea of being selfish after what I have gone through and endured in my life, after all that I have done sacrificing my life and body for others my entire life. However, I can’t shake the feelings and emotions and thoughts that NO ONE benefits from me being here. I am just a problem and cause issues for others because they are so much more important to this earth and to God than I could ever be. I can’t get rid of those thoughts, the thoughts that I am nothing more then a “problem” to this world. If I really want to help people, even with my training, I should stop being the anchor to their success and joy. I have tried everything I can think of to feel as if I am worth anything on this earth and no matter how hard I run or swim or pray it is just never enough. So I fight every second, every second with the feelings that if I, remove the weakest link from the chain(me), than the world will be a better place. I really don’t believe that anyone knows me or would care to know, or should even know me, for that fact. I am too damaged to be of use. Oh nevermind. No one understands. Just me and my night terrors are all that is left. Nothing of any use or importance here, just a detriment to humans. If I really want help people out and do something good for people, stop being a “problem” and “hassle” to others and leave. I can’t explain it, with this evil going on in my head…. i am tired of being a problem to my family and others. I am always in the way. They would be better off without me causing problems for them. I should stop. I don’t need to be a problem on the Internet too.

    1. Oh, no, Hopeless, the world would NOT be a better place without you! I have sunk in the sea of those thoughts before myself, and I know how convincing they are. I don’t know from your phrasing if you are talking about feelings you’ve had in the past, or if your 12-step community has been able to help you, but, regardless, we are all here, waving at you in the dark, at the bottom of your abyss, and reaching our hands out because YOU are worth the effort. You are worth the effort because you exist. Please know that your jerk brain is LYING to you when you think these things. Depression is a nasty lying liar. It causes hallucinations of worthlessness, just like the too-large dose of vicodin caused hallucinations of imaginary conversations after my c-section. Brain chemistry is tough to fight against, but it can be done. If your meetings aren’t giving you enough, please talk to your doctor.

  3. Great read.. we have a lot in common… 🙂

  4. Depression is tough…. And unless you have endured it, you may never understand it.

  5. This is so words out of my own heart! How have we not met yet?! I can’t wait to dig into your archives and look forward to meeting you some day in person. I literally have a draft of this, but way less awesome in my draft posts. Instead I might just link to your beautifully expressed version. Mine is still raw and awkward and chaotic. Kind of the same as my feelings about all this. I still catch myself looking for Jen’s car and waiting for this all to be a bad dream. Looking forward, Nathalie

  6. I have struggled with depression for many years now. I do agree with you on all counts! It’s an illness and nothing to be ashamed of! I have my Mother-In-Law living with my husband and I and have just taken over my Mom’s finances. I have a relatively stressful job and just this morning was talking with a co-worker that is watching her Mom decline in an Alzheimer’s unit. My co-worker is always trying to fix everything and never says “No” – I fear that she’s taking on too much. I told her my story and also that she needs to take care of herself and get some medication/therapy and that it really helped me! I’m praying that she will consider my advise. My first step was admitting that I needed help! If I’m not on my medication I have thoughts of suicide that I can’t control. It’s not fun! I DO want to live and be a great wife, mother, sister and grandma! In Feb 2015 I am going to welcome my 5th Grandbaby and I always pray that my children and grandchildren don’t inherit this illness! My sister also takes medication for the depression so I fear that it could be passed on. So a push for research for a cure would be so wonderful!!! My faith in God and in Hope are strong and that does help me tremendously!!! Thanks for sharing and your words are more powerful than you will ever know!

  7. Beth, I’d love to hear from you ways that friends and family can help people who suffer from depression. Specific, loving ways that we can use to reach those around us who are suffering, yet who often don’t acknowledge their pain openly.

  8. It sounds like a heartless thing to say, but suicide of an addict/alcoholic is the ultimate act of selfishness, and saying it is any other than that, doesn’t do us as a community any good as there are others whom might suffer the same fate if they do not understand the true, root cause of the disease. The disease of alcoholism that Robin Williams suffered from is an illness rooted in self-centered fear (per AA). This self centered fear must be rooted out and dealt with otherwise it’s death or institutions for those afflicted. It is a deadly disease and the alcohol, drugs and depression are only but symptoms.

    1. Ryan, respectfully, you are conflating issues. Alcoholism is a disease. With symptoms, diagnostic criteria, treatments, prognosis, etc. Depression is a separate disease. It’s not just a symptom of alcoholism. It has it’s own set of symptoms, diagnostic criteria, treatments, prognosis, etc. Alcoholism can contribute to depression, true. But in that case suicide is still an outcome of the depression. The claim that because AA steps mention “self-centered fear”, an outcome of a separate disease is also “selfish” is simply wrong. And damaging. Setting up this false dichotomy where folks who commit suicide who also struggle with alcoholism are selfish, while those without alcoholism are victims to their disease is both incorrect and harmful.

      1. Well said

      2. Alcoholism not only is a disease but it’s often used to self medicate and numb the pain of depression. I personally have not dealt with alcoholism but I do battle depression and can understand why one would turn to alcohol or drug use to numb the pain and despair.

        Let’s please refrain from judging, until we’ve walked a mile in the other person’s shoes. *hugs*

    2. You need I read the big book. Alcoholism is but a symptom to a problem not depression is a symptom to a problem. Umm I know because I am an alcoholic. And I read the big book..

  9. Beth, yours is the best piece I’ve seen so far on this issue, these tough questions. Bravo!

  10. […] Robin Williams Was Sick, Not Selfish: On Suicide and Mental Illness by Beth Woolsey […]

  11. My son committed suicide almost 4 years ago. He was missing for 3 days when they found him on Christmas day about 1 pm . I always said he must have been insane when he did this to himself but my daughter has never forgiven him. Christmas will never be the same. Someday he will be able to tell me “why’. I pray for everone who has to deal with this disease.

  12. I have struggled with this question my whole life. I did not know about Jennifer Huston, but it hits close to home. I’m a 37 year old mother to three myself. My own mother committed suicide when I was 6 years old, & my brother was 4 years old. I do have to accept that she had a real mental illness and forgive her for making a choice that I would never make(repeatedly, it’s a cycle triggered by my own life events and anniversaries, I have to revisit and process again and again.)

  13. Sometimes the suicidal person thinks that suicide is actually the most selfless act they could ever commit. There was a time when my not-soon-enough-to-be-ex-husband had me believing that the best thing I could do for my children would be to remove myself permanently from their lives. Thankfully I realized before it was too late that if I killed myself there would be absolutely no one to buffer our children from his abuse.

    I never turned to drugs and/or alcohol to numb the pain of depression, but I have family who have chosen that route. It is a slower form of suicide.

    I’ve long thought that there is nothing that will stop someone who truly is suicidal from eventually finishing the act – not better mental health care, not physical intervention, not reassuring them of your unconditional love. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide those things. But we need to realize that it may not ever be enough.

  14. Beth, this helped me today. I was so sad/angry last night when I heard the news, but your post has helped more than the others I have read. Thank you for posting it.

  15. Beth, I think you and I have some things in common. Beneath a fantastic sense of humor and a biting wit lies an epic struggle; a story. And I so appreciate both in you, the hilarity and the honesty. And that darkness you speak of makes me tremble because I know it so well. It was my constant companion and for a time, I was consistently fighting for my life.

    It’s not purposeful selfishness. It is a mirage of hopelessness so real that it fools you into believing that the there is and will never be any relief. Calling it selfishness is easier than swallowing the truth: that there is a depth of pain that many never know.

    You cannot make an educated hypothesis on something you have never studied just the same as you will never totally understand a bleak road that you have never walked down.

    The end

  16. I too have been in that bathroom.
    Thank you for writing this.

  17. Thank you so much for writing this. Mental illness is something that is a large part of our family both on my side and my husband’s side. I have battled anxiety all of my adult life. We are very open and honest with our daughters in the hopes that if they start to feel overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, they can come to us. There is such a stigma attached to mental illness. I would never choose to feel this way. I don’t think anyone would. Thank you!

  18. What can help is letting everyone know, as you’re doing, that depression is an illness. There are many messages out there that deny that: ‘we are too blessed to be depressed’, ‘just snap out of it’, ‘you just need to think of others instead of yourself’. There’s the idea I read on a church blog that if you’re unhappy, you’re not right with God–that you’re in a state of sin.

    For those of us who suffer from depression, our illness can be treated and sometimes our lives can be saved by just having a message in a corner of our minds: this is not my failt, I suffer from depresdion; there’s help, there’s treatment, there’s medication–there’s NO SHAME. By not shaming or isolating people who are depressed, we may not save everyone, but we will save some.

  19. Thank you for giving this message to a larger forum than I am able to reach. I lost my dad to suicide. He was the life of the party, my best friend, my hero. The best dad ever. Unfortunately, this ILLNESS won the fight that was constantly going on in his brain. I even discussed it with him once I realized how sick he was, and pleaded with him not to do anything foolish. I told him I would not only be devestated, but so mad that I didn’t know if I could forgive him. In actuality, it was pure sadness that I felt, no anger. Sadness that he was so very sick that suicide was the only was his brain could think of to end the pain. My heart goes out to his friends and family.

  20. My husband and I just had this exact conversation last night when we heard the news. Thank you as always, for saying IT. <3

  21. Thank you! Someone introduced your blog to me a long time ago, and while I’ve been lurking for a long time, this seems to be the perfect place to start in. I love the sense of community I feel here. Your words remind me that there are other people out there who are going through the same things I am. I have chronic pain issues as well as depression, which makes it hard on my husband, who also suffers from depression, but his came with a free gift! OCD!! Not such a great gift.

    Things have been really hard recently. We’ve made progress on the chronic pain front, but are struggling to find a treatment for depression that works. I’ve tried several different pain medicines, some did nothing, one made me really anxious and depressed, which is clearly not going to work out, whichever is too sad as it was the first one that actually helped the pain. I’m seeing a psychiatrist who is very kind but you can only make progress if you can get to your appointment. I had to cancel my most recent appointment because I got a migraine. For some reason I can’t remember making the new appointment was left to me. I hate making a call in 99.9% of situations, add in the really bad depression and you get me last week knowing that I need to make the damn phone call, and knowing that getting to see the doctor will help, it took me a whole week to get to the point where I could make that call.

    You are part of my village, and I know you give me strength to keep going. I’m sure that if my kids knew you they’d thank you too. So way more than I thought I’d write. I love coming here when life feels really shitty and get confirmation that it’s the situation I’m in, and me that is shitty. And you remind me to enjoy every moment with my kids. My oldest starts middle school next month!!

  22. You know Facebook, the news, and article after article on the internet today and for days to come are covering what they “think” happened and speculating. I have read he was severely depressed, had financial woes due to alimony and child support, and fought addictions (yes, addictionS which means more than one). I read a news press release stating the one thing the family needed the most right now is for us to remember Robin for the laughter and enjoyment he gave to so many during his life. That is how Robin would want everyone to remember him.

    He is gone and has eternal peace now. He evidently didn’t have it here on this earth. He has children, a wife and a family and unfortunately they will have to endure lots of untruths said about their father, her husband, and their brother. The most trivial, mean, and vial thing I read today was on Facebook and said by a friend. Her thoughtless statement was “goes to show you that money can’t buy happiness.” Cruel, just downright cruel.

    Robin was a funny, talented, and witty actor comedian and he made us laugh. Made me laugh. And that is how I choose to remember him.

  23. So true Beth. That crushing is frightening when in the midst of it, an elephant on your chest. Thank you for your honesty, it helps to understand and demystify something so many are made to feel ashamed of.

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