“Owen, have you heard about Robin Williams?” That was the text message I received from my good friend with whom I lead a monthly support group for others living with mental illness. When I telephoned her, she told me of his death from apparent suicide. It was headline news when my wife Becky and I checked our online news sources and the radio.
I’ve been uplifted and moved by a few of William’s movies so I felt the loss. But when I read about his recent bouts with severe depression that likely led to his death, I thought, “It could’ve been me!” While I have never attempted suicide, I’ve thought about it many times. Such ideation seems to go with the territory of living with chronic clinical depression.
But suicide is only one of many bad aspects of mental illness — though probably the most tragic and has the biggest impactful on others. Depression and other forms of mental illness are painful and significantly impact one’s quality of life, relationships with others and ability to live a productive life to support oneself and serve others. They are frustrating and disruptive to family and friends. Fortunately, I’ve received excellent treatment from skillful and caring therapists and from prescribed medications. I’ve gotten to a much better place. While I still have occasional bad days that I spend in bed, most are pleasurable and productive. Generally, life is sweet.
But statistics show that of the 25 percent of Americans who will experience mental illness this year, 60 percent will go untreated. This is truly a community and national tragedy. From my observations, there are several key reasons.
First, there’s the stigma. Self-talk can include: “What will people think about me?” “I could lose my job if people found out!” “I’m not crazy!” Others may say, “Just get over it!” A man approached me at a booth promoting mental illness to say mental illness was just about “denizens” — his word for evil spirits — that could be eradicated by talking with one’s spiritual leader. At another booth a woman said, “Our family doesn’t have those problems. We are good people of faith.” A mother of several children told me that she would never take one of her children to a therapist because her child would carry the stigma the rest of his or her life.
But progress is being made against this kind of unenlightened thinking. Leaders are speaking out. President Obama said, “Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are suffering in silence rather than seeking help, and we need to see to it that men and women who would never hesitate to go see a doctor if they had a broken arm or came down with the flu, that they have that same attitude when it comes to their mental health.” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stated, “There should be no more shame in acknowledging (mental illness) than in acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor.” It’s interesting to me that he mentions a form of cancer in this context. Fifty plus years ago, when I was 10, my dear mother passed, and neighbors and friends were surprised to learn she died of cancer. Because of the stigma around cancer back then, my mother and father only shared her condition with a few very close friends. Hopefully, it won’t take us another 50 years to overcome mental health stigmas.
Secondly, not everyone who has a mental illness is aware of it. I went for many years without recognizing I had chronic depression and generalized anxiety, though the condition negatively impacted every area of my life. My astute and caring wife, who often sees things more clearly than I do, pushed me to recognize the issue and get help.
Finally, the ability and willingness to pay for treatment can be an obstacle. Fortunately, more health insurance carriers are expanding coverage for treatments for mental illness. My wife and I consider our out-of-pocket costs over the years for my treatment to be some of our best-spent money.
While hearing of the tragic death of the very talented Robin Williams is traumatic for many of us, perhaps it will prompt us all to think and speak about mental illness in more productive ways that will lead more people living with mental illness to get help.
Owen Ashton is a CPA and mental health advocate. He’s on the board of directors of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Utah. He can be reached at admin@OwenAshton.com.