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.
Much of the advice I dispense daily in my clinical practice involves guiding people beset by negative thoughts and feelings to respond to emotional discomfort in counterintuitive ways. Anxious? Approach your fears. Depressed? Get moving. Impulsive? Ride out your urges.
It all sounds rather simplistic. Yet changing behaviors in this fashion can improve your mood relatively quickly. Even more important, moving towards what feels scary or hard can help you build a protective core of confidence, making it easier to cope with the difficult times you’ll inevitably have to face in the future.
I won’t ask my patients to do anything I wouldn’t agree to do myself. Some of the “approach behaviors” I work on with them—touching a public toilet seat, say, or limiting themselves to only one glass of wine—don’t present personal challenges. But I certainly generate enough of my own worries to give me ample opportunity to practice what I preach.
Here’s an example: I just signed up for an eight-week course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Silly that a program designed to reduce stress should significantly increase mine, right? But just thinking about it makes my mouth dry up and my heart beat faster.
I’d been looking for an opportunity to deepen my meditation practice for some time now. Periodically I’d google “Mindfulness Meditation in DC.” The Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) always came up. I’d pore over the course offerings and then reject them because the timing wasn’t right or the center’s Buddhist orientation made me uncomfortable.
I had many of the same automatic thoughts and a few new ones yesterday when I found the listing for an MBSR course given through the Insight Meditation Community starting in just two weeks. “Maybe everyone will be a Buddhist. I hope they don’t expect me to practice Buddhism.” “I won’t know what to do.” “Will there be chairs or cushions? Should I bring my own cushion?” “Seven to nine-thirty on a Thursday night . . . I’ll be so tired after work, I won’t feel like going.” “I won’t have time to eat dinner and I’ll be starving.” “I won’t get home until after 10 and I’ll be so wound up I won’t be able to sleep.” “It might be lame, like that last mindfulness course I took.” “I might not be able to find parking.” “I won’t be able to walk the dogs or exercise on Thursdays.” “I don’t know what to wear. Should I wear yoga pants?” “I’’ll have to bring a change of clothes to work.” And even, embarrassing though it is to admit, “We’ll have to take off our shoes. I hope we can wear socks because I won’t have time to get a pedicure in the next two weeks.”
In the end, I recognized my reservations for what they were—excuses designed to avoid an unfamiliar situation causing me trepidation. I don’t like being a newbie, and this class raises all those old first-day-of-school insecurities (probably dating back to the start of kindergarten, when I wet my pants because I was too shy to ask my scary new teacher where the bathroom was and, humiliated, ran to hide in the coatroom when she asked the class who was responsible for the puddle on the floor).
So I did what I’d tell anyone else to do. I signed up.
To be continued . . .
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.