Robin Williams’ suicide ‘a choice, not a disease’?

Bring in big talent like Robin Williams is no guarantee of TV success, as CBS learned with
Robin Williams in "The Crazy Ones." / Photo: CBS

WASHINGTON, August 13, 2014 – The suicide of actor Robin Williams has drawn a great deal of attention to bipolar disorder and depression, along with an enormous outpouring of sympathy and affection for Williams.

But with the sympathy, some critics have raised an interesting question that demands thoughtful consideration: Should Williams’ suicide be viewed as just the tragic consequence of mental illness, and not as a choice?

Blogger Matt Walsh raised that question in a post that went viral, and generated a huge negative backlash from readers who consider his Christian perspective anti-science, ignorant, and cruel. But he’s not the only one to demur. Others object to a tweet from the Motion Picture Academy that said simply, “Genie, you’re free.”

READ ALSO: UPDATE: Celebrities, like Robin Williams, with depression and bipolar disorder

That tweet has been retweeted over 300,000 times and has probably been seen by over 70 million readers. Daily Beast writer Russell Saunders observed, “Though I am not a child psychiatrist, I have been involved in the care of many, many depressed children and adolescents over the course of my career. Some express a feeling of hopelessness and that their intractable sadness will never abate. It is vitally important for these patients to keep holding on. The very last thing I would want communicated to them is the idea that death is freedom, and suicide is liberation.”

Holly Thomas observed of the tweet in the U.K.’s Independent, “It could have even broken The Samaritans’ guidelines for media on reporting on suicide, which warn against anything that might ‘suggest that people are honouring the suicidal behaviour, rather than mourning a death’. Despite the Academy’s sentiment, suicide is not freedom. It’s a cry for help that always comes too late.”

These aren’t simply contrarian voices. Depression is a terrible and debilitating disease, and a person in the depths of a depressive episode is probably incapable of making a fully rational decision on this, but suicide is an action, and so it is a choice. To argue that it is not implies an inevitability to the act. The argument tells us that Robin Williams committed suicide because there was no other choice for him. He did it because he had to.

Many of the articles on his death belie this idea with a public service tag at the end: “If you feel suicidal …” or “where to go for help.”

None of us can stand in the shoes of Robin Williams or any other person who commits suicide, and they and their families deserve nothing but our sympathy. But to the living there has to be a clear message: Suicide is a choice. Do everything you can to spare yourself and your family the agony of that choice.

The Academy tweet unintentionally glamorized that choice. Death comes for us all, and at the end of a long life or a painful disease, it can be a relief and a blessing. Bipolar disorder is a disease, and an undeniably painful one, which is why we might be reluctant to criticize Williams’ choice. But bipolar disorder is not a terminal, untreatable cancer of the mind; it is a treatable, manageable disorder.

At one time, suicide might have seemed a rational response to a diagnosis of AIDS. Now HIV infection can be brought under control and managed, and suicide as a response to the disease seems much less rational. But it’s only less rational because we know the alternatives. It’s important that people who suffer know their alternatives, and that they have family and friends who can reach out to them and show them the alternatives.

Suicide is a choice, but to someone who is clinically depressed, it may seem as good a choice as any other. Our response to the suicidal person should not be, “it’s release; it’s a worthy choice,” nor should it be, “you’re in charge of your mind; think rationally about the consequences, think about your family, then decide not to kill yourself.”

READ ALSO: Robin Williams: Diagnosing bi-polar disorder

Our response should be to treat every person we meet as a unique, possibly wonderful individual who deserves the best treatment we can give. We should stand always ready to comfort those who need comfort, to mourn with those who mourn, to bear each others’ burdens and let those around us know, “you are not alone.”

Rather than judge those who take their own lives, we should give those around us a reason not to. We should be aware enough of those around us that we can direct them to help when they need more than we can give. If we live that way, people will still commit suicide, and it will still be a tragedy, but some will be saved.

We can take what is life-affirming from Robin Williams’ work, and there was a great deal is. We are sorry that he’s gone, and sad at the way that he left. He lived a life worth living. The tragedy here is that he couldn’t see that when he chose to leave it.

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Jim Picht
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.