I fear the news of Robin Williams’ suicide is following suit with so many other teachable moments, and I will try to not have the lesson get lost in the fray.
He left us the gift of a teachable moment: the opportunity to clarify and discuss mental illness.
A battle with bipolar disorder is a very different story than one of just depression. (if someone has ever been given an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder, then they will always have it, they cannot NOT have it) Unfortunately, bipolar is a brain chemistry deficiency and is incurable, and those with the diagnosis must take medications the rest of their lives, similar to Type 1 diabetics. Unfortunately, there is still so much stigma around mental illness in our society that those with bipolar often try to convince themselves, and others, that it’s something else. This all too often results in tragic outcomes.
We must remember that those suffering with bipolar did not bring this on themselves, they have done nothing to earn this punishment. It is not about lifestyle or behavior choices or willpower. To borrow a phrase from Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, “It’s not your fault”.
Suicide is the number one side effect of bipolar sufferers who don’t comply with their medication regimes. The highs (manic periods) are usually so much fun, so productive, the person has so much energy and so many ideas, they don’t want to lose them or have them end. Unfortunately they are followed oftentimes by severe downs (depressive periods) in which the person is difficult to reach. The severity of the difference between these high and low points creates a very difficult cycle for the bipolar sufferer, and for those who love them.
And then we wonder about creativity and genius, as in our beloved Robin Williams. There is no debate over his range, his quick wit, his razor sharp mind, but at what cost? I fear that the addiction and the depression, both of which are more socially palatable to discuss or “own” than bipolar disorder, were scapegoats for the larger story. Everyone loved Robin when he was up, I hope he loved himself too, but what about the dark times? How much fun is it to be around someone who could potentially go so low? So often I have new clients come in who are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to manage (mask?) an underlying bipolar diagnosis. Getting the substances out of the way clears our ability to make more accurate diagnoses and get the person the right kind of help.
Please don’t let depression alone take the hit for this tragic event. Depression, even severe depression, is treatable with therapy and medication, even ECT, and can end. But bipolar is a brain chemistry deficiency and must be treated with medication – forever. It does not just go away. Sometimes clients feel so good when they are on their medication they convince themselves that they don’t need the meds anymore. They really just don’t want the diagnosis.
We have to change the way we discuss mental illness, mental health, and be extremely conscious and careful as to how we use the terms. The colloquial misuse of these terms has diluted their true definitions, and therefore the road to those with them getting accurate help and support.
And if you or someone you know is in a crisis, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).