Robin Williams’s death: A reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish

News of Robin Williams’s death due to apparent suicide, said to be a result of suffering severe depression, is terribly sad. But to say taking your own life because of such an illness is a ‘selfish’ act does nothing but insult the deceased, potentially cause more harm and reveal a staggering ignorance of mental health problems

Robin Williams in Man of the Year (2006)

News broke today that Robin Williams had passed away, due to apparent suicide following severe depression. As the vast majority of people will likely have already said, this was terribly heart-breaking news. Such aniconic, talented and beloved figure will have no shortage of tributes paid to him and his incredible legacy. It’s also worth noting that Robin Williams was open about his mental health issues.

However, despite the tremendous amount of love and admiration for Williams being expressed pretty much everywhere right now, there are still those who can’t seem to resist the opportunity to criticise, as they do these days whenever a celebrated or successful person commits suicide. You may have come across this yourself; people who refer to the suicide as “selfish”. People will utter/post phrases such as “to do that to your family is just selfish”, or “to commit suicide when you’ve got so much going for you is pure selfishness”, or variations thereof.

If you are such a person who has expressed these views or similar for whatever reason, here’s why you’re wrong, or at the very least misinformed, and could be doing more harm in the long run.

Depression IS an illness

Depression, the clinical condition, could really use a different name. At present, the word “depressed” can be applied to both people who are a bit miserable and those with a genuine debilitating mood disorder. Ergo, it seems people are often very quick to dismiss depression as a minor, trivial concern. After all, everyone gets depressed now and again, don’t they? Don’t know why these people are complaining so much.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; dismissing the concerns of a genuine depression sufferer on the grounds that you’ve been miserable and got over it is like dismissing the issues faced by someone who’s had to have their arm amputated because you once had a paper cut and it didn’t bother you. Depression is a genuine debilitating condition, and being in “a bit of a funk” isn’t. The fact that mental illness doesn’t receive the same sympathy/acknowledgement as physical illness is oftenreferenced, and it’s a valid point. If you haven’t had it, you don’t have the right to dismiss those who have/do. You may disagree, and that’s your prerogative, but there are decades’ worth of evidence saying you’re wrong.

Depression doesn’t discriminate

How, many seem to wonder, could someone with so much going for them, possibly feel depressed to the point of suicide? With all the money/fame/family/success they have, to be depressed makes no sense?

Admittedly, there’s a certain amount of logic to this. But, and this is important, depression (like all mental illnesses) typically doesn’t take personal factors into account. Mental illness can affect anyone. We’ve all heard of the “madness” of King George III; if mental illness won’t spare someone who, at the time, was one of the most powerful well-bred humans alive, why would it spare someone just because they have a film career?

Granted, those with worse lives are probably going to be exposed to the greater number of risk factors for depression, but that doesn’t mean those with reduced likelihood of exposure to hardships or tragic events are immune. Smoking may be a major cause of lung cancer, but non-smokers can end up with it. And a person’s lifestyle doesn’t automatically reduce their suffering. Depression doesn’t work like that. And even if it did, where’s the cut-off point? Who would we consider “too successful” to be ill?

Depression is not ‘logical’

If we’re being optimistic, it could be said that most of those describing suicide from depression as selfish are doing so from a position of ignorance. Perhaps they think that those with depression make some sort of table or chart with the pros and cons of suicide and, despite the pros being far more numerous, selfishly opt for suicide anyway?

This is, of course, nonsensical. One of the main problems with mental illness is that is prevents you from behaving or thinking “normally” (although what that means is a discussion for another time). A depression sufferer is not thinking like a non-sufferer in the same way that someone who’s drowning is not “breathing air” like a person on land is. The situation is different. From the sufferers perspective, their self-worth may be so low, their outlook so bleak, that their families/friends/fans would be a lot better off without them in the world, ergo their suicide is actually intended as an act of generosity? Some might find such a conclusion an offensive assumption, but it is no more so than accusations of selfishness.

The “selfish” accusation also often implies that there are other options the sufferer has, but has chosen suicide. Or that it’s the “easy way out”. There are many ways to describe the sort of suffering that overrides a survival instinct that has evolved over millions of years, but “easy” isn’t an obvious one to go for. Perhaps none of it makes sense from a logical perspective, but insisting on logical thinking from someone in the grips of a mental illness is like insisting that someone with a broken leg walks normally; logically, you shouldn’t do that.

Stephen Fry, in his interview on Richard Herring’s podcast, had a brilliant explanation about how depression doesn’t make you think logically, or automatically confide in friends and family. I won’t spoil it by revealing it here, but I will say it involves genital warts.

Accusations of selfishness are themselves selfish?

Say you don’t agree with any of the above, that you still maintain that for someone with a successful career and family to commit suicide is selfish. Fine. Your opinion, you’re entitled to have it, however much we may disagree.

But why would you want to publicly declare that the recently deceased is selfish? Especially when the news has only just broken, and people are clearly sad about the whole thing? Why is getting in to criticise the deceased when they’ve only just passed so important to you? What service are you providing by doing so, that makes you so justified in throwing accusations of selfishness around?

Do you think that depression is “fashionable?” And by criticising the sufferers you can deter others from “joining in”? Granted, we hear more about depression than we used to these days, but then we know what it is now. We see a lot more photos from Mars these days, because we have the means of doing so now, not because it’s suddenly trendy.

Perhaps you are trying to deter anyone else who might read your views from considering suicide themselves? Given that statistics suggest that one in four people suffer some sort of mental health problem, this isn’t that unlikely an occurrence. But if someone is genuinely depressed and feels their life is worthless, seeing that others consider their feeling selfish can surely only emphasise their own self-loathing and bleakness? It suggests that people will hate them even in death.

Maybe you know some people who have “attempted” suicide purely for attention? Fair enough; a debatable conclusion, but even if you’re right, so what? Surely someone who succeeds at committing suicide is a genuine sufferer who deserves our sympathy?

Perhaps you feel that those expressing sorrow and sadness are wrong and you need to show them that you know better, no matter how upsetting they may find it? And this is unselfish behaviour how, exactly?

A brilliant but tortured individual has taken his own life, and this is a tragedy. But levelling ignorant accusations of selfishness certainly won’t prevent this from happening again. People should never be made to feel worse for suffering from something beyond their control.

The ‘Self Help’ Trap

The Problem of Self Help

Everyone wants to be better at something right? Like most recovering overachievers, I have a complicated relationship with perfection. While I am certain I can become a better version of me with the help of self-help books, seminars, life coaching and spiritual quest, I know for a fact that I can never achieve perfection.

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Most therapists, counselors, psychologists will agree that women are multi taskers. While men see facts and ‘the bigger picture’; women are designed to know and work with details so we try to get all the information that we need to be that effective and productive woman.

In the book The Relief of Imperfection written by Joan Webb, she summarizes what women go through just to feel they are growing as making things better.

“Books, magazine and newspaper articles, reality and news shows, commercials, internet pop-ups, websites, stores, doctors, schools, fitness centers and even churches present methods and habits we can and should adopt to look younger and trimmer; be healthier and more energetic, work faster and better at home of in the office. Be more successful; make extra money; maintain consistently satisfying relationships; obtain more education; improve our cooking; time management; home décor; parenting skills; build a bigger, better and more organized  house; be a more loving mate; enjoy increased fun and additional exciting vacations; enhance social interaction with neighbors, other moms  and colleagues –all while keeping up with technology, avoiding overload, reducing anxiety and stress, developing personally and spiritually, giving generously to the hungry and hurting, and doing all with greater love, patience, joy, self control, peace, persistence, passion and care.”

This is me. I can relate. I do believe there is nothing wrong of achieving such things, the real problem is, I am not designed to accomplish all this – and it’s okay. Even God did  not create the world in one snap…he created it slowly in seven days, in a time He think is best!

“Of course, perfectionism has its benefits, especially in work, where it motivates over-achievers to pursue high standards and new visions. Perfectionists are driven to improve and innovate. They are disciplined and detail-oriented; both of which are critical in professions where there is no margin for error…Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart are frequently credited with insisting that their teams strive for perfection.” wrote Amanda Neville in her blog.

It is to my shame that I can be impatient with other people who I think cannot do a great job with the task they are given. I think if I just do it myself it will be perfect or at least better! My colleagues usually say “Let go Lorraine. Let go”. Having that perfectionist attitude in me actually makes me not ‘a better’ person.

“Perfectionists, experts now know, are made and not born, commonly at an early age. They also know that perfectionism is increasing. One reason: Pressure on children to achieve is rampant, because parents now seek much of their status from the performance of their kids. And, by itself, pressure to achieve is perceived by kids as criticism for mistakes; criticism turns out to be implicit in it. Perfectionism, too, is a form of parental control, and parental control of offspring is greater than ever in the new economy and global marketplace, realities that are deeply unsettling to today’s adults.” According to Hara Stroff Morano on her blog in Psychology Today.

I am guilty of this behavior. Oftentimes I expect my husband to be better in some ways. I expect my kids to be excellent in everything they do from having the proper manners to dressing up themselves. I grew up already being a perfectionist. I would stay up late to study to achieve that perfect test score. I guess I had a little bit of obsessive behavior.

The problem of Self help books

Because we have this desire to be better and perfect, we turn to SELF HELP books. You think you are always One book away from a much better you..

My library has all kind of self help books i have bought through the years. I have an array of fitness books how to flatten an ab and build core muscles. Another set of managing your time, how to make friends, being a leader who can influence, how to be a highly effective person, having the wisdom to make the right choices, DIY books, how to understand the mind and behavior of men; how to raise up awesome kids; how to have a dynamic marriage; how to deal with difficult people and how to manage my Bipolar Disorder. And to mention having tons of spiritual books and different versions of the bible! So while I could fill my library with all these books, the fact is: Real change is hard!

Oftentimes, I read several books simultaneously. In reality I hardly have the time to read most of it because I have other million things to do as a mother and part time designer. They end up in my pile of unfinished books I have not been able to get through.

The self help book industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. It fills bookstores and conference rooms. It’s made media celebrities out of people and capitalized wildly off the growing self-consciousness of recent generations. Mark Manson reiterated this in his blog. He shared 4 things about the problem of self help.

1. Self Help Reinforces Perceptions of Inferiority and Shame

Two types of people get hooked on self help material: those who feel something is fundamentally wrong with them and they are willing to try anything to make it better, and those people who think they’re already generally a good person, but they have some problems and blind spots and want to become great people.

2. Self Help Is Often Yet Another Form of Avoidance

George Carlin once joked that self help was a paradox because if someone was actually capable of helping themselves then they wouldn’t need to read a book on helping themselves.

3. Self Help Marketing Creates Unrealistic Expectations

Although theoretically I have no issue with the profit-motive in the self help industry, in practice it causes problems. With the profit-motive, the incentive is not on creating real change but creating the perception of real change.

This can be done with placebos, teaching clients to suppress certain negative feelings or to pump their temporary emotional states. It can be done by gratifying anxious people with more information and neurotics with relaxation techniques. These are all short-term solutions that create the sensation of accomplishment and improvement, but almost always dissipate within a few days or weeks.

4. Self Help is (Usually) Not Scientifically Validated

Here are the self help practices which have been shown in scientific studies to have some validity: meditation or mindfulness, keeping a journal, stating what you’re grateful for each day, being charitable and giving to others.

Here’s what the science is hit and miss on (it usually depends on how or why it is used): Neuro-Linguistic Programming, affirmations, hypnotherapy, getting in touch with your inner child.

Here’s what is complete crap: Feng shui, manifestations, tarot cards, telekinesis, psychics, crystals, power animals, tapping, the law of attraction, anything supernatural or woo woo.

Remember the case of James Arthur Ray, the author of ‘The Secret’ a NY Times Best Seller book for months?. Millions bought his book and he became an instant celebrity. He facilitated a program called the “Spiritual Warrior” program. The over achievers crowded into the dark, windowless space and sat in two tight rings around a pit filled with heated stones and this was called “the sweat lodge.  Many had spent more than $10,000 to be part of it. He required his devotees to participate into this and they obeyed because they were told that overcoming ‘death’ is overcoming fear in your life. It culminated five days and was promised that this ceremony is the “catalyst for personal transformation. After hours later, several people died.

Our quest of being better or being perfect is addictive. We are not satisfied of what we have and who we are because society tells us that we need to be better because it is the only basis of success. I have to meditate about this myself and not fall into this trap.

Although the bible says “Be perfect because your Father in Heaven is perfect”, we can never ‘play God’. Playing God is trying to control events, people, situation and to make certain that things in our life come out right -or the way we want them too.

It is only through imperfection and accepting our limitations and weaknesses that God can work fully and transform our lives. If we try to conceal our fears of being weak, or denying that we are not better, we miss the whole essence of being a ‘human’. Failures are not all quite bad for your self esteem. And I will certainly never get flatter abs if I don’t take care of my self –esteem problems first!.

I have come to realize now that the only and truly Self Help book I can rely on is the Bible which I already have. It has the real ‘blue print’ how to live a life to the fullest, becoming a better person and attaining true knowledge and wisdom.

While writing this blog, It just dawned on me that it is only through reading the bible that helped me get through the darkest days of my life – and to truly ’help’ myself.

So the next Self Help Book and a NY Times Best Seller that comes out in bookstores, I’m gonna say ‘pass’ this time. :)

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