Robin Williams tragedy highlights that mental illness is non-discriminating: psychotherapist

In the aftermath of the suicide of actor Robin Williams, we asked Jennifer Brighton to talk to us about her reaction, what people might be feeling and what can be done. Jennifer is a Clinical Director with CameronHelps and a psychotherapist who specializes in helping youth.

What was your initial reaction to the death of Robin Williams?

I generally only follow Facebook pages that are positive and motivational, so when I saw this news come up in my feed I admittedly did not believe it.  Once I’d verified it, I like so many others, had a myriad of feelings and thoughts cascade.  First utter disbelief, then sadness, then questions…mostly….why, why, why?  I work with people every day that experience despair, sadness and suicidal thoughts so the news of Robin Williams’s death hit me hard.  Despite the fact that I have never met Mr. Williams, for me, it was as though one of my clients had made this choice.  For my generation, Mr. Williams was an icon of humour, kindness, humility and realness.  He publicly shared his triumphs and tribulations and he seemingly was working through his challenges.  He entered our homes and hearts and brought such laughter.  The thought that someone who was so generous with his spirit could feel that life was no longer worth living was and is such a heavy thought.

I then went to concern over how my clients would react to the news and sure enough within a very short period of time, I was inundated with emails, Facebook queries and posts.  My biggest concern was and still is that people with suicidal thoughts might see Mr. Williams decision as permission and be further motivated to take their own life.  Needless to say, the weight of this has been heavy.  I am sad for his family, friends and for the people he was close to because they will now have to sit with a grief that is inexplicably difficult, complicated and like no other type of grief.
What is the message you might want to convey to those who are reading about this tragedy and are looking for consolation or guidance?

Every day, I talk to my clients about making a decision today to take just one-step toward life.  I want people to know that staying on this earth just one more day is an act of courage.  We are here to learn and grow from the whole range of our experiences.  The hardest times in our lives often become the hurdles that turn us into solid, grounded, impactful, strong and healthy people.

I also want people to know that suicidal thoughts, depression….mental illnesses are real.  Still today, society is more comfortable with physical illness because we can see it.  Mental illness on the other hand seems illusive, confusing and even scary to some.  Fears of the stigma attached to mental illness keeps so many people quiet about the emotional pain and anguish they feel.  They suffer in silence.  Having a mental illness and/or feeling suicidal does not mean you are weak – quite the opposite actually.  It is our mind and body fiercely searching for a ways to express its needs.  For instance, if you are feeling depressed, you may not be putting limits or boundaries in place in parts of your life thus causing you to feel helpless and hopeless.  This is an opportunity to learn how to set those limits and boundaries in a way that you can live with.  If you are anxious, you may be putting unrealistic demands on yourself and your body and mind may be messaging that it is too much and you need to be more realistic and kind with yourself.  If you are suicidal, you may be feeling emotionally stuck in a state that feels painful and despairing.  You may believe that there is no other way out of this anguish.  In this case, your body and mind may be messaging that you want to end the pain associated with your current circumstances but not that your life needs to be over.  When you are despairing, it is because you are not seeing the available options.  A therapist can help you decode what the messaging is in your life.  Once you have a good handle on this you can make instrumental changes that will result in the negative feelings lifting.

The sad thing is Mr. Williams will never know the ripple effect taking his life has had.  Those left behind know.  Perhaps those who are thinking of suicide today will observe the massive impact suicide has on the survivors and it will help them to pause, delay their decision and ask for help.
When a Hollywood Star dies from suicide, this raises the awareness of the issue. Is this a good time to talk about depression and mental illness?

Yes it is.  While on the one hand we want to be respectful of Mr. Williams and his family while they grieve this traumatic loss.  On the other hand, Mr. Williams has highlighted for us that mental illness is non-discriminating.  He had fame, good fortune and wealth, yet he still suffered from mental illness.

What if people feel compelled to do something positive to honour Robin Williams or want to do something to prevent more suicides?  Where would they start?

To honour Mr. Williams, or anyone for that matter, that is struggling with mental illness, I would suggest that the public become educated.  As part of CameronHelps and Team Unbreakable, we offer a 3-hour training called SafeTALK.  We teach you how to notice the signs of suicide and how to link a person at risk with the right help.  What is so important to know is that people who are seriously thinking of suicide often flag their loved ones and people around them with subtle indicators that they are thinking of suicide.  We all have a strong internal desire for life and even until the moment that someone takes their life there is a shred of hope that they may be able to live.  Our job as concerned people is to notice these flags as invitations for our help.

If you are not up to doing this training, the most important thing you can work on is to be understanding and helpful to the people around you that may be suffering in silence – what an honour that would be.  Maybe even work to letting go of judgements of those who are struggling.  We never know what is going on in someone’s life.  Mr. Williams has highlighted that for us.
How is this suicide relevant to the work of CameronHelps?

CameronHelps is a charity devoted to the prevention of Teen Suicide.  This charity started after the tragic loss of Cameron who took his life at 19 years old.  David Harris, Cameron’s dad, struggled with how to move forward and then decided that he had to do something and hence the inception of CameronHelps, with a mission is to save one life at a time.  We work to increase awareness, decrease stigma and we do this through education and programming that combines physical health for mental health.  We have a unique program called Team Unbreakable that is take place in schools and community agencies in the Peel, Halton, Toronto, Hamilton and Barrie regions.  In this program, running coaches meet with teens weekly and provide training for teens to learn how to run 5km.  In addition to the physical training, teens are educated on various topics, like nutrition, goal setting, motivation, focus and concentration, mindfulness, positive self-talk, mental wellbeing – to name a few topics.  It is a program that gives teens the opportunity to grow and learn how to apply these skills to real life.

What would you like to tell any younger people who are listening to the Robin Williams story?

While Mr. Williams may not be iconic for teens, no doubt they have heard about his sudden death through the various media sources.  Their parents are likely talking about it.  Therefore, the conversation of suicide has entered their homes.  What I want them to know is that in those despairing moments, when suicide can seem like the way out of their anguish, there are other options.  I want them to know that people’s lives will forever be impacted negatively if they make the choice to take their life, because they are loved and cared for and that they matter.  Mostly, I want teens and adults alike, to know they are not alone.

We have crisis lines readily available if you are feeling suicidal. Mobile crisis services will come right to you with support people to help you work through your feelings.  You can see a crisis worker at any hospital.  You can call the police who are trained to deal with this and sensitive to your needs.  You can talk to your school guidance counsellor.  Your school offers counselling through social work department.  You have family service agencies that provide counselling, hospitals that have counselling services and private therapists that can often see you readily.

Anything else you would like to add?

When you struggle to make meaning in your life, remember, one day you will look back on the hardships of this moment and think, “Wow, I can’t believe how tough that was!”  And, it will be just a memory.  Perhaps a strong and significant one, but a memory nonetheless, of a time that you felt burdened but grew through it and learned to triumph and move forward in your life.  You will reflect on that memory and think, I am a stronger person for it.

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