In Memoriam: Mental Illness Connects Us All
Like many of you, I cannot stop thinking about the suicide of Robin Williams. In fact, when I look at my Facebook friends—people I have known since elementary school and others who are new friends and acquaintances—I am astounded by the number of folks who have been touched by depression, substance addiction and suicide. I am especially overwhelmed by the number of young men that we have lost to addiction and/or suicide. And while we all publically mourn the loss of a cultural icon, I am thinking a lot about my personal connection with mental health issues.
Thirty years ago, my family lost Daniel, our very close friend. Our families did everything together. We saw each other almost daily and spent all of our holidays together. Throughout my childhood, Daniel entertained me with marionettes and puppets. He was a brilliant artist and a gentle soul.
Daniel struggled with addiction and depression (they often go hand in hand), and, tragically, he took his own life in his early 20s. When he died, the family’s Rabbi suggested that they not make the suicide public in order to avoid prying and painful questions. I know he did that to comfort the family because then and now, brain illness is often thought of as a shameful personal problem rather than an actual disorder to be treated. In this way, the well-meaning Rabbi unwittingly made Daniel’s suicide an unspeakable secret rather than a community problem to be addressed and shared. He cut Daniel’s family off from an important resource: others who had suffered through a loved one’s suicide.
Abs and I started The Anxiety Sisterhood because we did not want to stay silent about our own struggles with anxiety, a brain illness closely related to depression. We knew how isolated and lost we felt, and how much we blamed ourselves for not being able to “just deal with it.” We used to feel ashamed to talk about it and worried that, especially in our professional lives, we would be thought of as “crazy” if we admitted to our disorders.
It turns out, what was really crazy was keeping silent about a problem from which so many suffer. Abs and I are certainly not quiet about our anxiety now—we talk about it to anyone and everyone, whether they want to hear it or not. And here’s some good news: it really helps! Abs always tells me that the single best treatment for her panic disorder was talking about it—that sharing it with others made it more “normal” and easier to deal with on a daily basis. Hiding pain only serves to intensify it and its accompanying sense of loneliness. Which is why we say DON’T GO IT ALONE!
In the same way, I feel we cannot stay silent about people we have lost to suicide. We need to talk about them, their strengths, and their illnesses. It’s time to demand that more resources and research go toward addressing and treating mental illness in all its forms so we don’t keep losing people we love.