Comment | Reflections on Robin Williams

Reflections on Robin Williams’ recent death have been widely broadcast and varied in their sympathy. This is often the case for opinions on mental health in general.If one positive can even be suggested to come out of such a tragic event, it could be at least that the historically taboo topic of mental health illness has been brought into the public spotlight. When 1 in 4 people across the UK experience a mental health problem of some description during their lifetime, and 8-12% of the population suffer from depression in any given year, it would seem that it is necessary to shed this stigma and start talking. Similarly, the fact that, last year, over 6,000 people in the UK committed suicide, and one person took their own life every 14 minutes in the US, is indicative that the time has come to acknowledge that we ought to be beyond the ‘social shame’ that is too often attached to mental health issues.

The main problem with attitudes toward mental health, I would argue, comes from a lack of understanding and education. Amid the widely broadcast series of opinions of Williams’ death, the most succinct and enlightening observation was that the cause of Robin Williams’ death was not suicide, but depression. There is an obvious widespread lack of meaningful education or information. This unfortunately leads to a narrative of ignorance alongside media and social misrepresentation. Consequently, many people have their perception of mental illness fundamentally flawed from the offset. When someone suffers from cancer and the condition becomes terminal, the ultimate cause of death, such as a seizure or stroke is never given, it is stated that they died of cancer. In this sense, the seizure is a fatal outcome of cancer, in the same way that suicide can be (and was for Robin Williams) a fatal outcome of depression.

Searching Twitter the day after Williams’ death, it wasn’t difficult to find comments speculating how someone with his wealth could have possibly been depressed, or even implying that his suicide was ‘a selfish way out’. In the same way that people make common comparisons such as, “I lost my job and I didn’t get depressed”, the fact is that both in public opinion and funding, mental health is looked upon as a second class and far less deserving issue than physical health. Often it is almost as though mental illness is a ‘life choice’, rather than an affliction. There seems to be a ‘just get on with it’ approach, which not only completely misses the point, but is also an entirely uneducated, offensive and dangerous way to view a problem with someone’s health.

Depression, as with any other mental illness, has biological as well as social origins; you can be genetically predisposed to certain types of cancer or develop them as a tragic twist of circumstance. Either way, no one would suggest you should not be treated or feel embarrassed to seek help. Within the NHS, mental health patients can wait up to two years for treatment, with some receiving no treatment at all – The Guardian stated recently that less than a third of people with depression receive any help. In comparison with any other physical health patients, 90% are treated within 18 weeks on the NHS. Bed occupancy is at 100% and even 110% everywhere in the UK for mental health issues, so it is not a small or depleting problem that is being side-lined or arguably ignored.

This lack of education is not only apparent in public opinion- the police are given no training in handling people experiencing breakdowns or problems due to mental health, and yet they make up a startlingly large proportion of the people they pick up on the streets. Under 18s picked up by the police if they are suffering with a mental illness are detained in cells to be assessed, due to it being a supposed ‘safe place’ for them to be taken when psychiatric facilities are at full capacity, as often they are. This clearly seems an entirely counter-productive way to treat vulnerable people – and again speaks to the lack of education, and therefore ability, to cope with mental health problems in some public services.

It is situations like this, or others, such as the government’s choice to introduce minimum wait times for physical, but not mental health services, which produce arguments that the mental health services are treated as ‘Cinderella services’, with limited funding and minimum priority.There needs to be a major overhaul in the way we think about mental health, to bring it in line with modern society and dispose of the historic mindset of mental problems being different in any way from the way in which we treat ‘physical’ illness. When tragedies strike like Robin Williams’ death, it is the fatal result of a debilitating illness in an individual, rather than someone’s choice.

Carrie Smith

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