For those of you that would rather listen/watch instead of read:
Dear Mr. Walsh,
You know, when I first read your controversial blog about Robin Williams, I was sad. Actually, I was enraged. I humbly confess that I wished I could push you into a corner and punch you repeatedly in the face. It was like all of the stigma that I’ve ever experienced from being “mentally ill” in America had reached its height and materialized into…your face. I wanted to annihilate that face. (Sorry.)
But then I thought, “Well. Maybe he’s doing exactly what it takes to earn a living for his family. Maybe he’s creating as much attention for his blog as he knows how.” Then, after I calmed down (we bipolar folk can be a little intense), I started to get it, from that perspective. I actually got to the place where I could admire what could just be your brilliant, business-minded agenda. “What if we’re doing exactly what he wants?” I thought, “We are still talking about him. That can’t hurt his blog views.”
Then came your response to all the controversy you had caused. You seemed discouraged with the negative responses to your words. Confused. Shocked, even.
I didn’t get it. Surely he must have known that making such an inflammatory statement in the title of that particular post would have caused some harsh backlash. He must have expected people to be “aggressively unreasonable,” right? I actually thought I was starting to get it! And now he’s saying that none of this was his intention? (I’m sorry, Mr. Walsh, with all due respect, I call bullshit on that point.)
I know it’s been a while since you wrote that controversial post, and I have read your follow up post in response to all of the criticism. Unfortunately though, reading your response still left me with an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t think some of the things that you have said necessarily merit such extreme, hateful responses. However, a lot of what you said confused me and came off as unfair. Although I don’t know you, I still want to respectfully disagree with some of the statements you’ve made. (I do agree with much of what you have said. This letter is specifically addressing the things that have made me feel sad or angry or misunderstood as someone who struggles with mental illness.)
I am a 26 year old woman living with bipolar disorder. Many precious people on the paternal side of my family have been plagued with mental illness for generations. (I recently found out that one of my deceased family members set themselves on fire to end their own life, so the topic of suicide hits close to home for me.) I have struggled with severe clinical depression myself, and, a year ago, I experienced a severe manic episode that landed me in (the worst place I’ve ever been) a mental institution for 8 days. My family members, whom I love dearly, have been directly affected by the stigmas of mental illness in our country. I have experienced those same stigmas, and I am honestly exhausted by them.
I am ready for a nation that understands my illness! (tweet this)
I am ready for a nation that responds with immediate compassion to the war I fight on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, your post(s) can be interpreted as insensitive to the stigmas of mental illness in our country. More so, they can be interpreted as exacerbating those very stigmas I fight so hard against. So, I wanted to address you personally, as a friend, not an enemy, in the hopes that you might somehow read this, and that you might somehow be open-hearted enough to at least consider my side of things.
1. (Of course) Your controversial title: “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease. He died from his choice.”
I’m sure you’ve experienced enough fury surrounding this statement. You’ve said that suicide is a choice and “there’s no debating this.” In a sense, I agree with you. Someone has to pull the trigger on their own life. (My family member had to pour the lighter fluid all over their own body and light the match.) Technically, you are right. At the end of the day, the depressed die literally at their own hands. That being said, I still have some thoughts for you to consider.
First, the “it’s a choice” mentality disturbs me, for a number of reasons. Whether it’s referring to homosexuality (let’s not even begin that debate), or suicide, we can probably agree that, historically, the “it’s a choice” mentality has severed relationships and has kept people isolated or at least feeling misunderstood. It is my personal opinion that deeming an issue as sensitive as suicide as “a choice” and closing the debate completely writes off the issue. This can be interpreted as insensitive. It can communicate a variety of things to those who do not know you:
“You’re not important enough for me to go through the emotional effort of trying to put myself in your shoes or researching the issue further.”
“I have hunkered down and beat myself into submission in one way or another, so you should not get off so easily.”
“This issue causes too much tension for me, so I need to simplify it.”
I know that it is possible that none of this is the case for you. I simply want to communicate what it implies, and why the “it’s a choice, there’s no debate” mentality is problematic.
Second, the “it’s a choice” mentality directly exacerbates the stigmas associated with mental illness. Here are some thoughts that came up for me when reading your article. (I’m sure I’m not alone):
If suicide can be solved by “choosing joy,” why pour millions of dollars into researching the brain and how it is affected by mental illness? If being joyful can help eradicate suicide, why should college students bother with going into the mental health field at all? Why spend years of researching in school to become a psychiatrist when all we need to do is tell these men and women to “choose joy”? Why pour billions of dollars into improving treatment facilities and mental hospitals? Let’s teach those people to choose joy and empty those facilities and pour those funds into something more useful (like our military.)
Believing that suicide is a black and white choice and understanding depression as being treatable by joy (and not, in fact, attacking your brain “like a cancer”) could directly affect the finances poured into the mental health field for research and improved treatment. Less funding leads to less research which leads to less knowledge which inevitably leads to stigma (not to mention the mistreatment and misunderstanding of those who deal with mental illness). How can people empathize with something they know very little about?
I’m not saying that choosing joy doesn’t work for some people. It has actually worked for me, in some cases. I really do appreciate your thoughts on life, and how we are all entitled to it. However, I have experienced the dark side of my brain, and in those moments it is as if I am a marionette, and the puppeteer in my brain (depression) is pulling all the strings (thoughts).
You said in your response, “I never discounted anyone’s pain or dismissed anyone’s suffering.” I can believe that this was your intention. However, when you say “your suicide doesn’t attack you like a cancer,” that is, unfortunately, exactly what you’re doing. You are discounting what many of us feel is a cancer in our brains, and what leads to a complete debilitation of rational thought or “choice.” That kind of black and white thinking is dangerous.
I’m not saying we should tell the depressed that they “have no power and no options.”
We don’t tell cancer patients that they have no power and no options.
But maybe if severe clinical depression was seen as terminal (as some cancers can be), we could fight it with the urgency and intentionality that it calls for. With depression, there is always the threat of death. Always. It could be any day. We should approach this disease with its pressing fatality and severity in mind.
2. In your response article, you said, “You feel like you have no choice,” but you do. “You feel like you have to leave”, but you don’t. “You feel like there is no help,” but there is. “You feel worthless,” but you aren’t.”
Yes. This conversation makes perfect sense to your rational-thinking, healthy mind.
Consider it a possibility though that this monologue does not often happen in the minds of the severely, clinically depressed. It may be nearly impossible for them to reach rational thought, similarly (not exactly) to how it is for someone with Alzehiemer’s to remember the faces of their loved ones.
I would argue that severe depression can cause someone to (figuratively) forget their own face, to forget their rational reason for living.
I have personally experienced this. I have (temporarily) forgotten who I was, why I should care for myself, and how much my people loved me. I could understand how someone could be so swallowed up in depressive thoughts that a lifetime of fighting them seems absolutely unbearable. I even remember thinking, “If I was gone, they wouldn’t have to suffer with me through this anymore. They would be free, too.” Yes, these thoughts are irrational. No, they are not true. However, in the moment, they are more real than anything I’ve ever known.
So, that “choice” of which you speak so fiercely, in my opinion, is convoluted. Perhaps it is as black and white as you say in your own experience, but not all people have the same experiences. Please consider this before making such extreme, potentially hurtful statements on the internet.
I have a dream. (Thanks, MLK)
What if mental illness was treated with the same compassion, research, and understanding as brain cancer? (Again, I am NOT saying it is exactly the same, I’m just dreaming here.) What if the stigmas dissolved over time with more research and awareness? What if my fellow brothers and sisters in arms were not ashamed of the battles they fight in private? What if a compassionate nation could help prevent mass shootings and the loss of so many of our loved ones? What if the force of our compassion could overrule and undo what years of misunderstanding has done?
Mr. Walsh, you could be right (I believe you are) in saying that chemical imbalances are not just physical, but spiritual. I would add that a lack of compassion for mental illness could also be a spiritual issue. It could be interpreted as a lack of spirituality. Jesus had compassion for the ostracized members of his society (women, “sinners,” lepers, the “demon possessed.”) Jesus flocked to the marginalized and, in turn, people flocked to him. Is it possible that the mentally ill (along with other minority groups) are the new “lepers” of our society today?
It is my prayer that you and millions of our brothers and sisters would find yourselves on the right side of these issues. That you would refuse to contribute to the mentality that pushes entire groups of people to the outskirts of their communities. I pray that we all would fight to choose joy, but also that we would fight our own egos and urges to reinforce our biases. I pray that we would always fight to employ fierce compassion when facing the overwhelming injustices in our world.
image: Andreea Anghel