Can Robin Williams’ death save others?

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Everywhere I’ve been since the news came out that Robin Williams died by suicide, people have expressed shock, dismay and disbelief that such a shining star of American entertainment could be susceptible to such a terrible demise.

While Williams kept us laughing, he had struggled for years with bipolar disorder, depression and substance abuse disorder. If we learn nothing else from the loss of this brilliantly talented person, I hope it opens people’s eyes to the fact that no one is exempt from mental illness because of fame, fortune or ability. Mental illness affects nearly one in five Americans and it can be a chronic, life-threatening disease. However, there is hope for recovery and help available to those living with it.

It’s not easy to overcome mental illness and on average it reduces life expectancy by 25 years. Robin Williams is an example of someone who received treatment for decades, and through it all he was able to live a full, inspiring and productive life. Williams was open about his disease and the treatments that helped him work through it. He relied on mental health professionals, family and friends for support. As Mental Health America President and CEO Paul Gionfriddo wrote, “For a very long time, he won more skirmishes with his disease than he lost.”

If any good can come out of our collective loss of Robin Williams and the many other Americans who complete suicides, I hope it is an understanding of mental illness and its implications. Stigma often causes people to hide their illness or the fact that a family member is dealing with mental health issues because they’re embarrassed or afraid of how they will be treated. In a perfect world, we all would be understanding and open to supporting those with mental health issues, not discriminatory or judgmental. People would seek treatment at the onset of any symptoms rather than living in doubt and fear before receiving help. All people would recognize that there is no health without mental health, therefore taking the best possible care of themselves to ensure good overall health and well-being. Let’s work together toward early detection and treatment of mental illness to make strides toward full recovery for all those afflicted with this equal opportunity disease.

For support, advocacy and education about mental health issues, please contact Mental Health America of Licking County. We provide support groups for autism caregivers, depression and bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, survivors of incest, survivors of trauma or sexual assault, survivors after suicide loss and a peer support group. Our staff can suggest resources for those seeking help with mental illness. We offer educational programs including Suicide Prevention, Bridges Out of Poverty, Parent Support and Self-Advocacy for youth with developmental disabilities. Our Compeer program supports adults with mental illness with wellness and social activities. See mhalc.org for details or call 740-522-1431 to speak with a staff member. You’re not alone — we’re here to help.

Penny Sitler is the executive director of Mental Health America of Licking County.

This Article appeared in the Newark Advocate August 21, 2014

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