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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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.
  • Kimberly Miller

    By stating that suicide is a choice and there are alternatives to suicide for mentally ill people is a blatant statement of ignorance on your knowledge of mental illness. We need to understand that if a bright, intelligent, giving and brilliant person like Robin Williams can commit suicide with all of his money and success…then this illness is much stronger than anyone knows. Bipolar/Manic Depression and other mental illnesses must have a very strong chemical and biological hold on people that no one truly understands yet. What people need to know is that this illness can be fatal if not treated early, and even if treated, sometimes the treatment can not even prevent this fatal outcome. There must be a link between the chemical and biological reactions of a bipolar/depressed person that prevents a person from making logical “choices” at this particular point of the depression. If our message to those who suffer from bipolar/depression is to think logical and take alternative steps of strength, we are doing as much harm as telling drunk drivers to think clearly after they are drunk. We are not addressing mental illness! By suggesting that family members and loved ones can prevent some suicides by pointing out the obvious alternatives to killing oneself you are putting false responsibility on family and friends of those who commit suicide while in a deep depressive episode of their condition. I believe that when a person gets to the point of suicide and are at that point due to mental illness…it is no different than telling a person who has reached a diabetic coma that they can snap out of it if they choose to do so…or that they should have monitored their medication or reacted to their symptoms leading up to that coma. Let’s use this very sad death of Robin Williams to open up the dialog of mental illness and how we as a society hear their needs…not just to treat it as another weak suicide that “chose” the wrong solution to their problems. After reading your credentials I can only hope that you do more research on such a meaningful subject as mental illness before writing about the mental health “choice” vs. “disease.” Action does not equal choice if the mind does not allow the brain to rationalize due to chemical imbalances. If the mind does not allow logic, how the hell can you say an act equals choice? I believe that suicide is natural to remedy unimaginable pain that the brain perceives. If the brain is only reacting to pain and is lacking what everyone else has to bring logic to the table – then you might begin to understand mental illness. You just need to stop thinking with your brain and begin understanding that not all brains work alike.

    • JWPicht

      I’m probably much less ignorant about depression than you imagine. You’ll note that I didn’t say that Williams could see the options clearly or weigh them rationally, but suicide is no more the necessary way to deal with depression than it is the necessary way to deal with cancer.

      I’m not putting false responsibility on friends and family; I don’t put any responsibility (blame) on them for Williams’ death at all. In spite of the best we can do, we won’t save everyone. But every human has a responsibility for the others around us. To claim that suicide is an inevitable outcome is like saying that poverty will be with us always (it will), and so I have no responsibility to help alleviate the suffering it causes, and please pass the roast beef. We can’t end suffering in the world, but we can make the suffering around us less if we choose. It may not be enough to save everyone, but it’s enough to save someone.

      You can’t snap out of depression any more than you can snap out of diabetes, but hanging yourself is a volitional act; it takes effort. You can’t decide not to die, but you can decide not to kill yourself. The job of the rest of us is to help you see the options and get the medical intervention you need. Depression isn’t preventable now, but suicide is.

      • Talkingtree

        I heartedly agree with Kimberly Miller’s response and not surprisingly it’s the view of most mental health professionals to eschew the word “choice” when talking about suicide because It stigmatizes mental illness. Using the word “choice” also presumes, no matter how disordered, how desperate, or irrational; how lacking in perspective the “reasoning” is that leads a person in that state of mind to act on suicidal thoughts, we somehow–it’s very difficult not to as people discussing this in a rational state–believe, “yeah but somewhere in there, you’re still there, still have a bit of control over this . . .you are choosing this act. There is a piece of rational thought still guiding.” I would say that’s a game for philosophy, semantics and even criminal law, but patently not for evaluating mental states for the purpose of treatment. Is it fair to call an irrational choice, founded in palpable desperation and pain to the sufferer a “choice”? You seem to think it is and necessary. How do you define choice . . .. Calling it choice or not choice doesn’t preclude the idea that suicide is preventable, so that’s not really the issue here. It’s an issue of what the word choice means to you, why is important to hang onto it or let it go? Choice implies responsibility—but if the information is being supplied due to faulty neurotransmitters that give one a perhaps panicky feeling that seems inescapable, that logic cannot override? And at that, whose logic, the logic of the outsider not in that state?

        Let me give a more blunt analogy—why does an animal caught in a trap chew off it’s own leg? Surely no rational animal would merely “choose” to chew off it’s leg—in the wild that is a certain, inevitable fast track to death. And I’m guessing it hurts like effing hell to slowly chew one’s leg through. What possesses an animal to do such a thing? One could only assume the desperation of being trapped, another kind of fast track to death. From what many who have attempted suicide have reported, the physical, mental state they were in at the time was a feeling of desperation, unending inescapability. An action under duress. It feels like impending doom. That we can’t understand it entirely, that we can’t quite imagine that state, those who never were in that state we should consider a blessing. To use the word “choice” by connotation puts an onus on the sufferer, and seems, however unintentionally, to imply a lack of empathy for the depth of the irrationality of the moment. It’s much easier to free an animal from a physical trap if one arrives before the leg is chewed through. However, the suffering from mental illness is more chronic, less visible, easy to mask and can recur at any time, compounded perhaps by new physical assaults to the brain (open heart surgery–you’ll have to google the effects, the early stages of Parkinson’s have since come to light) –a much more difficult battle to wage for all involved.

  • Donna

    I agree; it’s a disease. God is with Robin and his family. I’d like to find a way to volunteer for this disease…..will get on that later on.

    • JWPicht

      Bipolar disorder is a disease; suicide is a way to deal with it, a choice that precludes all other choices.

      • Talkingtree

        Or is suicide an act of desperation driven by a physiologically compromised brain? When one is in no state to rationally see or deliberate other choices?

        • JWPicht

          It may be an act of desperation; the choice is certainly not fully rational. But if we eliminate the notion of choice from this, then we conclude that suicide is the inevitable outcome of the disease. The brain isn’t simply a well-ordered or defective machine, unless we’re extreme reductionists who believe ourselves helpless in the face of neurochemistry.

          Some people consider the ideas of “choice” and “free will” to be entirely illusional. From that perspective, all that bipolar disorder does is exchange one inevitable behavior for another. This takes us into a discussion that’s as much philosophical as it is medical, and on philosophical grounds I reject that perspective.

          • Talkingtree

            “But if we eliminate the notion of choice from this, then we conclude that suicide is the inevitable outcome of the disease.” That absolutely does not follow. If the the brain can be treated correctly and in time, suicide is most certainly not the inevitable outcome. Many who every woke up from an attempt that was stopped and got treatment after their crisis, some quite angry or despondent about not being dead, can tell us there is still hope, they are now glad they were foiled by outside forces– and their thoughts after treatment (thus their decision making ability) are quite different than the moment they were in crisis. Their healthier self would not make that “choice”.

          • Talkingtree

            And just to add a further thought, you concede that ” the choice is certainly not fully rational”, if certainly not “fully rational” –how then does that make suicide somehow less inevitable? If the brain is mostly irrational, how is it you’re counting on the remaining rational bit to win out? It begins to sound like gambling on a longshot at the track . ..the odds are stacked against a good choice, but there’s a glimmer of hope? also not a medically helpful position, especially when the race isn’t settled once, as long as you’re alive and not getting effective help, the race reruns continually, and the odds might be getting worse.

          • Talkingtree

            I felt your entire piece was more about what “choice” meant to you philosophically . .. the fear that one could lose free will is strong and visceral. What is a brain, what is a mind . . .. can you have a mind without a brain, the physical organ? For a patient in a medical crisis, medical treatment will get him or her through crisis, not philosophy. So really I’m not sure what the ultimate point of your essay was .. ….

      • Kimberly Miller

        Have you ever known anyone with bipolar?

        • JWPicht

          Extremely well, and more than one.

          • kim Miller

            Have you ever known anyone who committed suicide while suffering from bipolar?

  • kim Miller

    I loved Talkingtree’s analogy to a trapped animal who gnaws off it’s foot when caught in a trap. Another perspective I would like to offer is the defense of a person who commits a crime and is declared insane (not mentally held responsible for the act). How can you explain the act = choice when our own legal system recognizes that the mind is not always capable of making “choices” in a person’s actions? The fact that Robin Williams did not leave a note or indication of what he had planned could be considered evidence that he may not have “chosen” his action, but instead may have lost control of his mind’s ability to rationalize exaggerated pain or depression. We will never know, but telling the public that suicide is a conscientious action may prove more harmful for those who are debilitated with mental illness. I think we can all agree that much more research needs to be done and that no one at this time can say what choices or rationalization is in the mind of a mentally ill person when they take their own life. Let’s just try to discuss the needs of more research before a person gets to that dark place and we may be able to help get rid of the stigma associated with mental illness.

    • Talkingtree

      ” Let’s just try to discuss the needs of more research before a person gets to that dark place and we may be able to help get rid of the stigma associated with mental illness.” I agree, very well said! At the end of the day more useful than debating free will. If my friend is quite drunk and chooses to walk into rushing traffic, do I try to stop him right now, or say, I guess he’s making a bad choice that precludes all other choices . ..