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.

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