If you’ve turned on the TV, opened up a newspaper, or navigated to any social media website in the last 24 hours, you know Robin Williams tragically passed away yesterday from an apparent suicide.
I’m a psychiatrist, but feel that I can’t comment more on his story because I don’t know it. I didn’t know he was struggling with depression or suicidal thinking, and even if I had read every article published in the last day I wouldn’t truly understand how he experienced depression, what happened in his life to drive him to suicide, or if there was any way it could have been prevented.
But as I was reading through some social media sites this morning, I saw many posts from people speculating on his life and illness. Some people have never experienced depression and are not mental health professionals, but figure they’re free to judge his life or say what he did or didn’t need.
Others have been depressed, but assume their experience with this illness is the same as anyone else’s, and therefore presume without knowing anything about him to say things like, “He just needed this medication, it saved my life,” or “Medications probably killed him, or “Therapy was the only thing that helped me — if only he had gotten therapy he might have made it,” or even “I was able to pull myself up by the bootstraps, so his suicide demonstrated a character defect.”
Then there is the group of people, perhaps the most guilty because we should know better—the mental health professionals. Suddenly, we have an opportunity to demonstrate our knowledge. Some of us position ourselves to be interviewed as experts in newspapers, or make lofty, presumptive comments on social media sites. The article always reads, “Doctor so and so—who did not examine the patient—commented that… (insert generic comment about depression here).
If there is one thing I’ve learned from being being diagnosed with cancer, it’s that each of our stories of illness is unique. While cancer patients may share a kinship in certain ways, my cancer is not your cancer, and I could not assume I knew the right path for another person suffering from this disease.
It’s especially important for mental health professionals to practice humility and keep an open mind in their work. Yes, I am an expert in psychiatry, but my patients are experts in their bodies and minds. If a patient tells me they have a certain experience, who am I to tell them they’re wrong? My job is to collaborate with them on their path to healing—not to tell them what to do.
When a person experiences the ultimate tragic end to any illness, let it be a lesson as to how little we know rather than how much.
How can we advance the field of psychiatry, for example, to better prevent suicide? How can we learn to be more observant and open so that if people in our lives are suffering, we notice and take action? How do we, when the worst tragedies occur, find strength within ourselves to offer compassion and lovingkindness to the people affected?