Robin Williams, Depression, and Stinkin' Thinkin'

Our Friend, Mark Stoeltje is the CEO of SA Clubhouse. Here is an op ed piece he wrote for the SA Statesman where he tells it like it is......

SAN ANTONIO — The plight of people with mental illness generally stays hidden from public view until a tragic event brings it to the forefront — Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook. This week, our eyes were opened again with the death of Robin Williams, apparently from suicide.

On the outside he appeared to be happy and successful, but he must have been in a lot of pain, and must have felt very alone to choose such a terrible and final act to end his suffering. A Williams representative told national media organizations that the comedian had been battling depression.

While for a short time we will mourn his death publicly, with many in Hollywood, and even our president, speaking about the senselessness and sadness of his death, let us remember that more than 40,000 people in the United States will commit suicide this year. And while we don't always know the reasons people choose to take their own lives, one thing we can be sure of is that most, if not all, felt very alone.

When it comes to mental illness, isolation is a killer, both figuratively and literally. Yet the stigma in society regarding mental illness keeps people living in shame and isolation, and keeps us from having the kind of understanding that can lead to positive change in how we treat this extremely marginalized segment of our population.

Women, African-Americans and our LGBT population have all made great strides in opening people's eyes to the evils of discrimination, the first step in changing minds and hearts. Acceptance begins with understanding. Yet fear and discrimination are still rampant toward people with mental illness.

Why is this? As human beings, we fear what we do not understand. If we don't have someone close to us with a serious mental illness — a friend or a family member — we may think of the stereotypical hospital patient from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” or the man ranting and raving on the street because he is battling voices that only he can hear. But a person with mental illness may also be the person in line behind you at the grocery store.

Despite what many people still believe, mental illness is not something people develop because they are bad or because they have a character flaw or because they did something to deserve it. It is an illness, a disease of the brain, plain and simple. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness in a given year. Some 1 in 17 experiences a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. This means that in San Antonio, 350,000 people will experience mental illness this year, and more than 80,000 have serious mental illness.

How can we reduce this stigma of mental illness — to bring it out of the closet and into the light? One way is to dispel the myths and the fear surrounding it. The news and Hollywood would have us believe that people with mental illness are to be feared, that mass shooters are representative of people with serious mental illness. The truth is, a person with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim of crime than to be a perpetrator of it. I have met hundreds of people with mental illness at the Clubhouse, a nonprofit offering hope and understanding to this population. Because of the unique nature of our international recovery model, I have come to know them as friends and co-workers rather than as patients or clients. We work together, play together and treat each other as equals. Together, we are bringing mental illness out of the closet and into the light.

The death of Robin Williams was tragic, but it doesn't have to be completely in vain. Let it move us toward acceptance and understanding.


I would add only one thing to the wisdom of Mark's insights. In severely depressed, suicidal persons, there is stinkin' thinkin'. When my oldest son committed suicide some 16 years ago he left behind a note. It was apparent that my son believed that our entire family would be better off if he were dead. I do not know how he could think such a thing. I don't know what in my behavior would lead him to believe such a thing. Then I read about the stinkin' thinkin' of deeply depressed persons and how suicidal persons believe that the world will be better off if they are gone. The world misses you Robin Williams and we are not better off after your death.