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Tragedy, Mental Illness, and Change in the Wake of Celebrity Death

Mental illness isn’t something I like to write about. It isn’t something I like to think about. Coming from a family riddled with addiction, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders on both sides makes the subject too personal, too troubling for me to broach it easily. Sometimes, though, this deep, personal connection with it means I can’t keep quiet. This is one of those times.

When Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead on his bathroom floor in February, it induced a wave of conversation about addiction and substance abuse. May’s Isla Vista killings sparked intense debates over severe mental illness, violence, and involuntary commitment, in addition to the more widely spread discussions of rape culture and misogyny. Now, Robin Williams’ suicide is generating the same kind of buzz over severe depression and bipolar disorder. These events, while tragic, do a good thing for us: they get us to talk about things we prefer not to talk about. Unfortunately, that seems to be all we do. We talk. Some of us come out of whatever closet we’ve been hiding in. Others express their concern and/or support for the people whose stories they’re finally getting a chance to hear. Then time passes, and we move on. Nothing changes. We go back to our regularly scheduled lives, forgetting the lessons we’ve just learned. This has got to stop, not because it does a disservice to the people whose lives we said we were mourning (which it does), but because it does an even greater disservice to those of us still here. Those of us still suffering, still living, still surviving. And let me tell you: If you think that includes only the people who have directly experienced addiction, rape, violence, depression, bipolar disorder, etc., you are dreadfully, dreadfully wrong. Mental illness affects us all. It destroys relationships and destabilizes our families, often for generations (a fact my family tree attests to readily). It robs us of works of genius and economic gains. Worst of all, it alienates us from each other, and too often leads to death. I don’t believe it has to be this way, but we have to start talking about these things before the deaths occur. We have to start making changes in the way we structure our world and the ways in which we view each other before the suicides, before the homicides. We have to start to care now, while we still have a chance to fix something. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know what the answers are, or how we can regularly bridge the gap between who we appear to be and who we actually are. I don’t know how to connect, but we must begin connecting and we must begin doing it now. Let’s start by admitting these things: Mental illness isn’t a choice. It isn’t something people can shake or just force themselves out of. It’s a powerful, all-encompassing demon that controls your mind and robs you of even the illusion of free will. Any gains the mentally ill person can make against this demon – from getting out of bed (as an example) to not cheating on his/her spouse (another example) – is monumental and should be acknowledged as such, but we can’t forget that it is only one small gain and one that has to be made over and over again. A single moment of wellbeing doesn’t equate a cure. Just because you see someone functioning 1) doesn’t mean he/she is in fact functioning, and 2) doesn’t mean they don’t need help, support, or love. We are amazingly adept at hiding ourselves from each other. This is especially true of the mentally ill, who often feel so alienated, “false,” and/or out of touch with the world that they don’t have a realistic impression of themselves, let alone anyone else. We need to recognize that there are battles and wounds we cannot see. That some people right now, right next to us are digging their fingernails into their palms – leaving small, crescent moons of blood on their hands – just to sit still, or not bust into tears, or not throw themselves off the bus. That the boy next to us in the hallway may be feeling so alone and invisible that he is fantasizing about murder or suicide. That the woman standing behind us in line at the supermarket may have scars up and down her thighs because it’s the only way she knows to handle the pain inside of her. That the most well-liked person at school or work may be spinning radically out of control, secretly throwing away his/her life savings or chasing self-destruction via sex or drugs. That even our closest friends, even our partners may be struggling with a demon we’ve never even guessed at. We have to make it easier to share these demons with each other. We have to make it easier to get help. We have to make it easier to care. The ramifications for not doing so affect us all.

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