When Robin Williams died in an ‘apparent suicide’ after battling severe depression, it was shocking, sad and in some ways, disturbing. After all, Robin Williams completed suicide. Aaron Hernandez completed suicide early this morning and now it seems that suicide is cowardice and a just punishment.
Neither Aaron Hernandez nor Robin Williams define suicide. They are sensational stories of the day.
It’s a complicated issue that demands respect, education and understanding.
Society has had its share of suicides but it is different and more profound when it’s someone famous. It gets more news coverage, judgement and evaluation. Forget Aaron Hernandez and who you think he was as I’m not going to try to change your mind about him. But I do want to change your mind about suicide so think about Robin Williams.
Many people will never understand Robin William’s death; they will never grasp what would cause a man who appeared to have everything – including countless fans and an abundance of love – to take his life. Some will berate him and call him selfish while others will have more sympathy for his family than for him. But there will be an overwhelming number of people who will understand what he did; who will feel a tremendous sadness and kinship for a man they never met because they know his pain.
I’ve often thought about the genius of his gift, wondering if his humor was a defense mechanism, masking his pain for so many years. I don’t claim to know how long he was depressed or what sort of treatment he sought. But I do know this, whatever he felt was incredibly overwhelming and it would have been very hard for even those closest to him to save him.
Imagine a garden you’ve planted from seed and cultivated with love. When the seeds break the ground, they seek sunshine, warmth and nutrients. The seeds have no control over the weather, they are as dependent on it as we are on our minds. You may have control over the location of your garden, the frequency with which you tend to it and the amount of care you give it but you can’t control the weather.
It may be sunny one day and rainy the next. You prop the vines in the hopes they will flourish once the rain passes. And they may, until the next rain comes. The weather changes, sometimes without warning. Sometimes you can see it come, much like the triggers a depressed person avoids, you try to protect the plants before the storm. The intensity of the labor can get frustrating, especially if there is no relief in sight.
One day, a tornado or hurricane passes through. Even though you see it coming, you can’t stop it and you may not be able to seek shelter soon enough. The plants are torn from their roots and the garden completely destroyed. You may have thought you could protect it yourself and that the storm wouldn’t be that bad or you simply didn’t know how, or were afraid, to ask for help. Your neighbors and family couldn’t help or didn’t know you needed help.
The garden is now gone, as is Robin Williams and many like him. Our minds are like the garden. There is a storm somewhere looming and many people make it through life without feeling a tornado or hurricane pass through. Some people manage to pull themselves through but live in constant fear of the next storm. Others, like Robin Williams, can’t weather it and are destroyed. Still others will tell you to build a greenhouse or buy your vegetables at the store because you simply don’t know what you are doing and there is no need to tend the garden.
If only it were that easy.
While thousands of people mourned the death of Mr. Williams, the mourning of those of us who have weathered the storm was much different than those who have never seen it and can never understand it. Believe it or not, many people will also feel relieved. Relieved that depression isn’t just relegated to ‘regular people’. We believed that it would get the attention it needed so we would stop calling people cowards.
But it hasn’t, we are right back to where we started.
Now think about those around you and think about the impact your words have. Think about the person who wants to get help but cannot.
Why? Because Aaron Hernandez’s actions have made suicide into a punishment and a way to save taxpayers money and a solution for his family so they no longer have a criminal among them.
If you believe this, you aren’t seeing what suicide really is, and that is our biggest problem.
Don’t focus on individual cases but rather focus on the greater issue. Until we do, we will continue to lose good men and women to it. We are perpetuating the stigma and the families of the 39 law enforcement officers who completed suicide thus far in 2017 will continue to suffer.