There’s been a conversation after Williams’s death about the need to decrease stigma. There is a need for mental health advocacy. This tends to happen after celebrity deaths — there’s a flare, a sizzle, and finally, a fade in interest.
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In the midst of chaos happening in Ferguson, Gaza, Syria — occurring amidst the unwritten stories of pain happening in homes around the world — in the injustices that are not reported and do not get written about, Robin Williams died.
Which is a particular pain to my city, where I once drove by his house with a dinosaur in the front yard, and where my sister-in-law trick-or-treated at the Williams’s house growing up. He belonged, in a way, to San Francisco.
I found it difficult to write about his death on social media. What I did see in the media, social or not, was often upsetting — for one, I grew tired of the glamorization of the bipolar disorder that he lived with. Madness makes the artist. Too sensitive for this world. It was a similar refrain to the one I’d seen after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which was also a death that still pains me.
I brought my laptop to a corner cafe for work, and the two older men beside me saw fit to speak ill of Williams. It was clear that they were saddened by what had happened, but they also expressed something I often heard elsewhere, which was a bewilderment that Williams would do such a thing when he was so wealthy, when he had so much; how could someone do such a thing with such selfishness? What about his children, his family?
Later that day I was scheduled to go to a low-income mental health clinic in the city, where I’d give a talk about stigma, survival, and thriving to a group of people with an assortment of struggles, and all with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Yet I almost didn’t go. My own recent troubles have been clouding the air. I’ve been distracted and sleepless. As I rode to the clinic, I was also in physical pain from a fibromyalgia flare-up, and I entertained the idea of arriving, apologizing, and leaving.
But when I entered the clinic, and checked in with the woman behind glass on the first floor, where another woman sat in the waiting area slumped so far forward that I almost thought she’d fall, I knew that I’d get into the fully carpeted elevator; I’d go upstairs to give my talk.
The patients were already crowded around the table, prodding a newspaper sprawled open there.
“Robin Williams died,” one of the women said. “Killed himself. He was bipolar.”
“Oh no,” someone else wailed. “I don’t want to hear about that.”
Surprisingly, many of them didn’t know that he’d died.
There’s been a conversation after Williams’s death about the need to decrease stigma. There is a need for mental health advocacy. This tends to happen after celebrity deaths — there’s a flare, a sizzle, and finally, a fade in interest. The Washington Post reported that despite a better understanding of mental illness, the stigma surrounding it hasn’t decreased. Since 2006, some aspects of stigma have actually increased: people were “more likely” to say they didn’t want an alcoholic to marry into the family, and “more likely” to say they wouldn’t want a schizophrenic as a neighbor. (I’m a great neighbor, by the way.)
There has been a momentary uptick in openness. People are talking about their mental health challenges — usually depression — on their blogs. People want some kind of change to happen. People are making gestures toward sharing their understanding, of bringing comfort to others. And I wish that it would last.
I gave my talk. As I left, standing with the moderator and the other speaker at the elevator, one of the consumers who’d been listening approached me. She had, I knew, lived a hard life — and was continuing to live a hard life.
“You are my inspiration,” she said to me. “My brother says, ‘Even a mental illness person can go to school!’”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s true.” And I thanked her. I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t know what the rules were about physical contact, so instead I tried to tell her with my eyes. I wanted to thank her because she was telling me something else: that even if I am feeling unwell, even if I am hurting, even if the world seems full of despair — everything is not lost. A small gesture can make a difference. Our small gestures can be part of the everything.