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Why We Need to Break Down the Stigma of Mental Illness

As we come to terms with the loss of a brilliant entertainer, we need to understand the reality of mental illness, and destroy the stigma around it.

"I Don't Know What to Do With My Life"

Following the news of Robin Williams’ suicide, people around the world have been mourning one of the funniest and most passionate entertainers of our time.

TV and online newsfeeds have been a blur of memorials, best of collections, profound quotes from Robin himself and roles he played, as well as countless tributes.

While many are finding it difficult to believe that a man who was able to bring laughter and joy to so many people could take his own life, it is the reality of the situation.

There has also been another large trend throughout the media, an open conversation on what ultimately led to Williams’ death – severe and chronic depression.

The effect of depression on your life

Most of us know about depression, and that it has to do with not being happy. But that is not an accurate understanding of the self-hatred and self-destruction caused by the disease. Depression stops you from thinking and behaving as your normal self. It not only prevents you from finding joy, but also stops you from working, communicating, sleeping, eating, and even getting out of bed. Depression calls you ugly, stupid, pathetic and a failure. It will consistently tell you that you’re not good enough, and that you’re unloved. Depression does not leave room for hope.

When you’re depressed, your logic is skewed, being down becomes normal and everything else is not. Asking for help can seem impossible, as it would first take picking up a phone, and then actually speaking to someone about your illness. Even if you have everything in the world, it still feels as though you have nothing at all.

Many depressed people try to self-medicate, such as Williams who was a cocaine and alcohol addict. Substance abuse and other forms of self-harm are not uncommon for people living with a mental illness. As Williams himself said after relapsing, you’re just “filling in a hole”.

The stigmatization of mental illness

What some of us fail to realize is that people with mental illness are sick all of the time, even if they are not actively experiencing a mental health crisis, they are still living with the condition. Mental illness isn’t something you entirely heal from, it’s not a broken bone, it’s something you manage, at times more successfully than others, and it’s always part of your life. You express mental illness in different ways throughout your life, but it is always present.

The articles that have discussed depression have largely been focused on encouraging sick people to seek help, and for family and friends to be supportive. Yet, while these are sincere and well-meant thoughts and ideas, they don’t necessarily address the bigger picture. In order to prevent people from living in isolation and being tortured by diseases such as depression, the world needs to breakdown the stigmatization of mental illness. We need to end the shaming of people with mental illnesses and stop delegitimizing their pain, as it only causes them to hold up within themselves until they reach a breaking point.

Statistics vary on the number of people living with a mental illness, yet it is safe to say that one in five people have mental health problems, ranging from mild to severe. And most of the people with mental health illnesses are hesitant to ask for help and let their sickness become known, because of the stigma our society holds.

In order for the disgrace of mental illness to be erased, each individual needs to be responsible in creating not only a supportive, but also nonjudgmental environment for people with mental health conditions. But, this next part is even more crucial; this supportive and nonjudgmental environment must be available all the time, not just when there is a period of crisis around someone’s death.

There is no one right solution to treat depression and mental illness. Mentally ill individuals need specific treatment for their personal situation. Yet, a supportive and nonjudgmental space to heal in would certainly be a helpful start. And if it existed at all times, and not only in desperation, true transformation in the mental illness world could take place.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams. You didn’t have the opportunity to see yourself as the world saw you, a funny, loving and passionate human. Your tragic death has allowed many people to open up and talk about depression. In your honor, and for all the others struggling with mental illness, or have been taken by suicide, we will fight to break down the stigma surrounding mental health illness. We will work to live in a world that every person sick with mental illness can feel unashamed, and safe coming out.

As Williams said in one of his most brilliant roles, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change this world.” 

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