The week following Robin Williams’ suicide, my Facebook news feed was flooded with articles addressing the event. While unconfirmed, it is likely that Robin Williams was bipolar or at the very least severely depressed. However, the accuracy of this diagnosis is not so important because the public took this inference to be true, and the public’s reaction to bipolar disorder causing his suicide horrified me. Reading through the comments posted alongside various articles, it became obvious to me that there are enormous misunderstandings regarding bipolar disorder and depression. Some of the comments were cruelly dismissive of these conditions, while others were well meant but harmfully misguided. It was clear most of these people had never knowingly dealt with a person affected by bipolar disorder or, if they had, were far too blinded by preconceived notions of mental illness to see its reality. As someone whose close friend suffers from bipolar disorder, I have seen firsthand how these misconceptions can harm those afflicted with mental illness. But even those who have not personally witnessed this pain cannot ignore the statistics that reveal the severity of the issue. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States (“Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”). Of these suicides, over 90% of those who killed themselves were diagnosed with a mental disorder, and amongst those with a mental disorder, people suffering from bipolar disorder had the highest rates of suicide (“Facts About Mental Illness and Suicide”). As a society, we can help alleviate this problem by addressing the harm done by common misconceptions and, in turn, by educating the public about mental illness and how to act towards sufferers.. While not everyone can be a scientist or doctor finding treatments for mental illness, society as a whole can learn to adjust its attitude toward bipolar disorder and depression in a way that lessens the challenges for individuals suffering with these conditions.
In order to examine the misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder, there needs to be a basic understanding of what bipolar disorder is. Those with bipolar disorder go through two types of episodes: manic and depressive episodes. When experiencing a manic episode, people with bipolar often seem high and extremely happy. They usually talk quickly and are hard to follow because they tend to bounce from one idea to another. They will be restless and unable to sleep, taking on many, usually too many, new projects and making rash decisions such as spending too much money or going on a road trip instead of going to work or school. Manic stages cause individuals to feel invincible. Depressive episodes are the polar opposite in most respects. People with bipolar disorder will feel drained of all energy and will. The same projects they once readily took on will seem hopeless and pointless. Death will often seem like the best option, and this state is when suicide attempts are most common. The speed and frequency of these episodes of bipolar disorder vary from person to person. In addition to these symptoms, some people also suffer from hallucinations while going through these phases (“Bipolar Disorder”). I have many memories of my friend talking to me a mile a minute about all her plans during her manic phases, laying out ideas for different books to write while planning out three different demanding jobs to take on. And no one could tell her otherwise, for it was impossible to get her to accept a logical perception of time and her own capacity. She saw herself as gorgeous, with the world at her feet. She would not stop moving. I have had several conversations where I sat on the edge of her trampoline while she jumped, sometimes for hours on end. Then, sometimes as soon as the next day, she would fall into a depressive state. A 98% on a middle school test would mean all her aspirations were out of reach, because her score should have been over 100%. She cried often, thinking that she was overweight or ugly, and believed that no one cared about her. And these were only the effects I could see, as often she did not even have the energy to be around people. Watching my friend go through her ups and downs was heart wrenching, but far worse for me has been seeing how others vilified her actions. Often, even those who knew she had bipolar were unsympathetic toward her plight, not bothering to understand her behaviors. Responses to her behavior, much like the comments about Robin Williams’ death, show me that this lack of understanding is far too prevalent.
Some of the misconceptions about mental illnesses like bipolar disorder are more easily recognized as harmful than others. In an article by John Grohol about the death of Robin Williams, one commenter posted, “Sad. Really cannot understand sometimes why even wealthy people are victims of depression. I have tons of bills to settle every month” (Grohol). Comments like these show the mistaken belief that those with money are not entitled to have mental illnesses. These comments blatantly dismiss the experiences of the afflicted, implying that those deemed “well off” cannot be tortured mentally. This dismissal only causes the afflicted to feel isolated and guilty for suffering when they feel they have no right to suffer. Another common accusation is that people with mental illnesses are weak. This perception is especially evident in cases of suicide. When Robin Williams committed suicide, news host Shepard Smith accused him of being a coward for leaving his children (Segal). The last thing a person fighting a battle against their inner negativity and self-doubt needs is someone from the outside repeating the same things they are hearing on the inside. These stereotypes confirm the inner doubts of the afflicted, who believe it is weak and selfish to reach out for help. As a result, the public only further drives people with bipolar disorder toward depression and possible suicide. These comments are more likely to guilt someone haunted by bipolar disorder into suicide than out of it, as the individual may only see him or herself as a strain on family and friends. For those without bipolar disorder or depression, it is hard to picture how this frame of mind is even possible. After all, who could doubt the love of family? But psychologists, such as Thomas Joiner, have recognized that the measure of an individual’s “perceived burdensomeness and a sense of low belongingness” is a strong predictor of suicide attempts (Joiner). If I had not witnessed firsthand my friend with bipolar while she was having an episode, I would not have been able to imagine how the mind can twist things. During an episode, my friend would remember every frustrated comment made either by herself or her family, and she would block out all her good memories. She would become convinced their words and actions revealed an underlying hate for her; at other times she would break down in tears of guilt, convinced she was a burden to her family. No words could assure her otherwise, and it was heartbreaking to watch her become convinced of these terrible things. It did not matter that her family loved her dearly because in the reality of her mind, they despised her. People like Shepard Smith, who publicly announce that those who commit suicide are cowards, clearly have no knowledge of how the brain of someone with bipolar disorder or depression works. This lack of understanding can have terrible consequences for those suffering from a condition such as depression or bipolar disorder.
Although these callous comments are harmful, well-meant, but deeply misguided comments and praise by those who do not suffer are just as harmful. In a Humans of New York post, a girl talked about her bipolar sister, and how she sometimes envied the “freedom” her sister seemed to have during a manic phase. The post was flooded with seemingly supportive comments like, “A little crazy never hurt anyone 😉 ;)” and “She’s not crazy. She’s right” (Stanton). While seemingly supportive, these perceptions are still harmful. While the comment with the conspiratorial winking faces clearly is an attempt to be supportive of the sister’s actions while manic, it only serves to be more isolating to those with bipolar by being terribly wrong. It dismisses an often frightening and dangerous time as being whimsical and fun. In reality, a person experiencing a manic episode cannot stop, even when she wants to. When my friend was going through a manic phase, she would want to do everything, throwing caution to the wind. Suddenly, 3 am would seem like a good time to learn skateboarding, choosing a busy road on a giant hill as the ideal practice spot. She would not be able to eat anything, and sleep was out of the question. These behaviors were terrifying to both her and her loved ones. Bipolar disorder is far more serious than “a little crazy”; moreover, manic episodes certainly can hurt, even when it is not a depression-driven suicide attempt. Far too many people now romanticize mental illnesses, treating them as a way to get attention without considering the terror that comes with them.
Another dangerously misinformed group are people who cannot help but lecture the mentally ill and suggest uneducated “cures.” These individuals represent the type of misconception most addressed by the organization the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. These people often dismiss the need for professional help, sometimes vilifying it. Common alternatives include “think positive,” eat healthier, exercise more, get more sunlight, or meditate (“Facts and Myths”). These kind of statements are extremely frustrating for someone with bipolar or depression to hear because they are such deceptively simple tasks. Therefore, it is disheartening and isolating when the afflicted person inevitably finds that they do not work. Those offering the advice to “think positive” often fail to recognize that is often impossible to even think happy thoughts, let alone thinking away the mental illness. The exhaustion caused by depression is not just someone crashing after drinking too much sugary soda. Asking someone to exercise for a person going through the depressive phase or sitting still long enough to meditate while manic is about as practical as asking someone on crutches to run a marathon. These suggestions are about as likely to work as “Praying the gay away.” Furthermore, the inherent condescension that comes with someone thinking he or she can manage to cure a complex disease in one minute can be downright enraging to a person with bipolar or depression who has struggled for a lifetime. Individuals may absorb and accept these misconceptions about medication, even though the studies have shown that proper medication is a vital part of treating bipolar disorder (Vieta & Colom). Worse, the uneducated comments vilifying medication can prevent people with bipolar disorder from seeking much-needed treatment at all.
The problem with each group is clear: they represent a fundamental misunderstanding of bipolar disorder that contradicts the reality of the disease in drastically different ways. People who suffer from mental illness are not just stressed over bills. “Going crazy” is not just some whimsical event like skinny dipping, and “positive thoughts” are often impossible to will into being. Those afflicted by mental illnesses should not have to continue being hurt by ignorance. While Robin Williams might not be able to read the misguided thoughts on his suicide, many other people affected by bipolar disorder and depression can and have, and the negative feelings caused by these comments will likely lead to more suicide attempts. Since ignorance is the problem, knowledge is the most practical solution. Robin Williams’ death should be a wakeup call, inspiring society to become more aware of how easy it is to hurt those suffering. Mental health advocates need large public events that get people interested in learning about what these mental illnesses really entail. The event could be through an event like the Ice Bucket Challenge that makes use of social media to spread a message and encourage education for those who are otherwise uninterested. Catching public interest with a fun and seemingly random viral challenge like this would be a good way to draw the public in with small questions like “What is this challenge about?” When people look up the answer to this question, their searches would lead them to information on bipolar disorder. In addition, places of learning like schools and job sensitivity programs need to have mandatory activities to learn in depth how to interact with someone who has a mental illness, particularly if he is going through a prolonged episode. Educational programs would involve teaching people what bipolar disorder and depression actually entail, explaining what attitudes and words are harmful and why, along with which attitudes and words are generally helpful, and would promote patience towards those suffering from bipolar disorder or depression (“Bipolar Disorder”). These lessons should start early, so that acceptance and understanding will come naturally to the younger generation, destroying misconceptions before they even start by providing accurate information. The public needs to learn how the minds of those suffering from bipolar disorder or depression work, what kind of behavior and comments are helpful, and which are harmful. Proper knowledge of and compassion toward people who suffer from mental illnesses should be just as prevalent as our compassion toward those with a physical ailment. If we can achieve this understanding, then stories such as Robin Williams’ may no longer be so prevalent.
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Prager, John. “FOX News Host Calls Robin Williams a Coward Over Tragic Suicide.” Americans Against the Tea Party. 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.
Segal, Jeanne and Melinda Smith. “Helping a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder.” Helpguide. N.p. 2014. 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Jan. 2015.
Stanton, Brandon. Humans of New York. N.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.