Commentary from Dr. Carolyn Phelps
I watched this episode on grieving and mourning the loss of someone who has suicided on Monday August 11, 2014 and on the drive home that night I heard of Robin Williams’ suicide. The synchronicity in the universe stuns me sometimes. These deaths just hang in the air. Unfair, untimely, not right. In this country we have such difficulty dealing with death. We don’t talk about it easily or readily in general. But suicides reach a whole new level of not talking about it. As if the experience was not bad enough , we add to it a lack of vocabulary. Not even a loss of words – that implies we had the words in the first place. Most of us don’t have those words, easily. We don’t know what to think much less what to say. In the face of suicide, we become 5 year olds, relentlessly asking why. A million why’s. Why did she/he/you do it? Why didn’t you tell me? Why wasn’t I enough for you to reconsider? Why didn’t you get help? Why didn’t the help matter? Why didn’t you hang in there? We can haunt ourselves with the why’s. It is a question that doesn’t play fair because it doesn’t have an answer that satisfies.
To develop the vocabulary for talking about suicide, we have to be able to talk about mental illness. Freely, openly, commonly. Not in whispers, Not with derision. We need a culture shift. Not just more resources – though without a doubt resources are necessary, vital. We need a culture shift where we all take responsibility for addressing the stigma associated with mental illness, When stigma poses one of the greatest barriers to seeking help. That burden should not fall to John Bauer and his family alone, nor should it fall to the other families who have come before him , or who will follow him. One of the stigmatizing aspects of suicide is the fear families and friends face that somehow they are to blame for their loved one’s death. And that they will be blamed by others. People who are determined to take their own lives will find a way to do so. We can help. We can minimize risk. Families can do everything right. And at the end of the day the person still has to meet us halfway. Robin Williams’ death poignantly reminds us that resources alone will not save people. And his story reminds us that success, fame, money, adoration of millions of people, access to health care, people who love us – that all of these things are not a vaccine that prevents or cures mental illness. Don’t misunderstand me. We human beings are hard wired for affiliation. To be there for each other. To love and to support one another matters. It is why people share their story here. It is why Mr. Bauer has shared his story with other’s who find themselves members of a club to which they never thought they would nor wanted to belong. It is why the research shows that the number one thing that people can do to buffer stress, distress and mental illness is to reach out. Thank you so much to the Bauer family for sharing their story and in so doing teaching all of us that it is possible to bear the unbearable. You might also want to check out Adam Levy of the Honey Dogs on you tube – and on Speak Your Mind (speakyourmindonline.org). He also talks poignantly of losing his son to suicide. May their courage allow others to find comfort.
We have the ability to help many if not most people who suffer with depression and anxiety and name your mental illness. Suicidal thinking comes from this place of feeling trapped in misery. A distortion that is part of the illness of depression; the illness in mental illness. To be sure, we need better solutions. Until then seek the help you need until the help matters. I don’t think Megan or Mr. Williams would want you to do differently. And as for you Mr. Williams: the world will forever hold you dear in our hearts for the joy you brought into this life. We will bear the anguish of not being able to alter your course. As the title character in the movie Jack, you reminded us “life is fleeting…make your life spectacular.” That you did.
And my favorite from O me O life – written by Walt Whitman and paraphrased and spoken by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society:
“What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer – that you are here – That life exists and identity.
That the powerful play goes on and you will contribute a verse.
That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.
What will your verse be?”
Carolyn Phelps, PhD, LP