The suicide of comedian Robin Williams this week has left us reeling. Whenever someone so successful takes his own life, we’re reminded that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Even celebrities aren’t immune to its ravages. In fact, being rich and famous may even heighten a sense of despair for someone who seems to have it all.
On TV, in the newspapers, and online, commentators, journalists, and the general public are speculating about what led to Williams’ final expression of hopelessness. Almost certainly, they are wrong. Even those of us in the mental health profession can’t always say what pushes a person over the edge. And we definitely can’t draw any conclusions about the inner torment of someone we know only from his public persona.
Even so, ignorance hasn’t stopped many from weighing in with their opinions, as a Facebook post I saw this morning highlighted. It said,”Pharmaceutical companies are evil.”
I don’t even know where to begin. Is the poster suggesting Williams was taking psychotropic meds, which led to his death? Is she alluding to the Black Box warnings on some antidepressants about the potential side-effect of increased suicidal ideation (usually among teens and young adults)? The only thing we know for sure is that whatever treatment Williams was receiving, it failed.
I doubt similar accusations would be lobbed at Big Pharma if someone with uncontrolled hypertension were to die of a heart attack.
Misconceptions about medications used to treat depression unfortunately keep many people who could benefit from psychopharmacology from taking full advantage of the range of options available to them. I don’t know if Robin Williams was on antidepressants. But he was in and out of therapeutic programs over the years, both for depression and for alcohol and drug abuse. He suffered from a mental illness, and it ultimately killed him.
Let’s stop all the commentary by self-proclaimed experts and simply mourn the loss of a beloved entertainer who brought happiness to millions but couldn’t find it for himself.
I just cleaned out the fridge. No more unidentifiable slimy greens in the vegetable crisper, shriveled limes in the fruit bin, and molding jars of pickled okra and salsa on the shelves. I’m planning a roasted eggplant dip and cucumber salad for dinner tonight to use up the last of this week’s CSA produce.
I was feeling pretty virtuous until I opened the freezer. Sharing space with the plastic containers of precooked beans, quinoa, and brown rice, alongside the loaves of artisian whole-grain bread, were three half-gallons of ice cream, three pints of premium gelato (there had been four until I polished one off last night—“to free up shelf space”) and three pints of frozen yogurt. I’d purchased one of the gelatos and one of the frozen yogurts. My husband had stockpiled the rest.
He’s pretty health-conscious most of the time, avoiding excess salt, eating massive salads every night, and eschewing red meat. Formerly a cooked vegetable hater, he’s even become a devotee of roasted Brussels sprouts and kale. So how to explain his frozen dessert hoarding habit?
I found the answer in a New York Times article, “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries.” Several studies of consumer choices in fast-food restaurants found that posting calorie information did little to reduce calorie consumption overall. In fact, at Subway, people actually ate higher calorie meals despite reading the nutritional information, possibly because the chain offerred a $5 special on footlong subs.
Behaviorial economists conclude that good intentions take a back seat to economic incentives when we’re choosing what to order in a restaurant. That also seems to be what’s going on when my husband shops at the Giant. When I’ve asked him to cut back on buying ice cream because I end up eating more of it than he does, he says, “But it was on sale. Two for the price of one!”
I can’t get upset with him. It’s not his fault. Behavioral economics made him do it.
So I guess I don’t have to beat myself up either for lacking the willpower to eat fruit for dessert instead of gelato. And for not choosing the frozen yogurt—which, as I said, is in ample supply in my freezer and would be a lower calorie option. Because another study of consumer behavior found that people presented with a range of healthy, neutral, and unhealthy menu items most often went for the unhealthy foods.
As psychologists do, the researcher coined a term to explain the tendency to make a nutritionally unsound decision when more nutritious choices are available: “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Just seeing the healthy menu options apparently makes us feel healthier and thus gives us the license to overindulge.
So the next time I’m tucking into a bowl of Talenti caramel cookie crunch, I won’t blame myself for my lack of willpower. And I might even top it with a dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.
Because I’ll know it’s just a case of vicarious goal fulfillment.
I generally steer clear of political discussions. They don’t interest me very much, and, as a psychologist practicing in DC where I see people from both sides of the aisle, I don’t want to risk alienating anyone. But a story that ran in the Post a few days ago just begs for comment.
An American University anthropology professor, Adrienne Pine, brought her sick baby to class. While she gave her lecture, the child crawled around on the floor, putting a paper clip in her mouth and exploring the electrical outlets. After a while, she began to fuss. So Pine picked her baby up and, in full view of forty students, nursed her and kept on lecturing without, apparently, missing a beat.
More than capable of finding their own distractions apart from the ones provided by Professor Pine, the students went on Twitter to relay the story.
Sidestepping the issue, the university administration chastised the professor for putting the students’ health at risk by bringing a sick child to class. They also chided her for her vitriolic response to a student journalist (whom she accused of an “anti-woman” tone) who interviewed her in an attempt to write about the incident for the school newspaper. (The professor subsequently issued an apology to the reporter.)
Another breastfeeding flap that made the news recently occurred when a restaurant owner discretely approached a patron who was nursing her baby, breasts fully exposed, and offered to provide a privacy screen for the table. Other diners, it seems, were uncomfortable. The “lactivist” mother was incensed and took her outrage to the media.
I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of the working mother. I’ve been there myself. During my oldest child’s first two years, we went through a succession of bad baby sitters before we found the lovely, devoted woman who ended up caring for my children for a decade and always remembered their birthdays every year with a card even after we moved to Maryland. But before she came into our lives, we had our share of childcare crises.
Once I had to dash home, retrieve my baby, and order the locks changed when the sitter quit abruptly in the middle of a workday. I had told her I didn’t want her taking my daughter out on a 20˚ below zero Chicago winter afternoon. She was angry at me for ruining her plans to tote my child along for a lunch she had arranged with her boyfriend to celebrate his winning an assault case. (No, he wasn’t a lawyer.)
Another time, with a different sitter, I discovered my infant had been left to the care of my sitter’s relatives in the waiting room of the hospital maternity ward where the sitter’s daughter was giving birth.
And yet a third babysitter called me to come home from work after she had lost her temper and shaken my eighteen-month-old, hard, for not picking up her toys. I was relieved she’d had the sense to be frightened by her loss of control and resign her post. But she left me in the lurch nevertheless.
I’m also not opposed to breastfeeding. I nursed my three kids cumulatively for about seven years. How old were they when they gave up the breast? Well, let’s just say one of them weaned herself by telling me, “Mommy, it doesn’t taste good anymore.” (Granted, she was an exceptionally verbal toddler).
So please don’t tell me I’m anti-woman or anti-breastfeeding. Or, as another AU professor suggested, that the lecture hall lactation display upset students because they prefer to view faculty as “walking brains” without lives and bodies.
I just don’t buy that explanation. I’m a faculty member, and I have bodily needs. But I would never decide to silence a rumbling stomach in the middle of a class by eating a sandwich. That would be rude. Or if I were, say, diabetic and needed my insulin, I’d most certainly excuse myself to inject myself in private no matter how precarious my blood sugar level was. There are professional and personal boundaries to maintain.
As for the charge of sexism, I doubt it would go unnoticed if a male professor were suddenly to strip off his shirt and continue teaching bare-chested because he felt too hot.
Since when do we have the right to do whatever we please, wherever, for our own convenience, without regard for the effect our conduct has on others?
The professor’s and diner’s In-your-face attitude about breastfeeding has much more to do with their outsized sense of entitlement than with gender politics.
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