Five years public: A reflection and a request

It’s Sunday evening as I type this, and it is a beautiful night. And, as Facebook was kind enough to remind me, it’s also a sad anniversary: Today, five years ago, we lost Robin Williams to suicide.

William’s suicide inspired a slew of memorials, sadness and outpourings of grief. It also reinvigorated a conversation about mental illness in American society that desperately needed to happen – and now, needs to continue. Williams had always struggled with mental illness and addiction, and had always been very open about his pain. Now, the extent of his demons were laid bare for all to see.

I was letting my dog out in the backyard when my wife texted me the news of William’s death and suicide. And it hit me hard. As I’ve said repeatedly, if a man like Robin William’s could lose his battle, what hope did I have?

Then, while scrolling through a Facebook status, this comment, from someone I defriended on the spot: “So sad Robin Williams committed suicide. He just needed more faith in Jesus!”

That comment crystallized it for me: People really were this dumb about mental illness.

And that resulted in this Op-Ed in the Allentown Morning Call, by State Representative Mike Schlossberg: Reflections on a Personal Journey with Depression.

From the op-ed, words I had never said publicly before:

It was October 2001 when I began my journey with depression. A freshman at Muhlenberg College, I had been sad before, but never like this. It was a hopelessness that felt like a black cloud smothering everything I did.

It felt like my future was a wall — that there would never be any brighter days. I didn’t know I was suffering from depression at the time, but I do remember I couldn’t see any hope. The words of friends and parents were largely irrelevant, and I didn’t understand how I would ever feel OK again. After suffering through that blackness for many weeks and months, I began to contemplate if suicide wasn’t the better option.

Monday’s tragic suicide of Robin Williams has left millions of Americans baffled. How could a man of such talent, humor and power choose to end his own life? The sad and tragic truth is that mental illness, depression and suicide know no boundaries.

My path to recovery began with Rick at the Muhlenberg College counseling center, who helped teach me how to change my thinking, cope with the stress of a new school and how to deal with a breakup with my girlfriend from New Jersey.

When it became clear words weren’t enough and the anxiety attacks began getting stronger, he recommended me to a psychiatrist, who put me on an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pill, which I still take to this day. I type these words without any shame. Why would I be ashamed? Are any of you embarrassed to be taking Lipitor for your cholesterol or Prilosec for your heartburn?

My point is this: Millions of Americans suffer from mental illness, and millions recover. There is no shame in saying you are depressed, you are anxious, and you need help.

There are many real tragedies which flowed from Robin Williams’ death. First and foremost is the human one: A husband, father, artist and inspiration left us way too soon. But it can’t be forgotten that William’s death likely caused others to end their lives as well, as a direct result of the suicide contagion effect. One study attributed as many as potentially 2,000 suicides to William’s public suicide. This heaps unmitigated pain on a nightmare.

What studies like this don’t quantify is how many others, like me, chose to go public in the aftermath of William’s suicide. I was one of many, many people to do so – and I can’t imagine the collective, positive impact that all of us combined have made. Nothing occurs in isolation. My struggle and the hope that I hope I was able to inspire only came from William’s suicide.

So today, on this important five year anniversary for me, a request: Share your story, share your pain. It doesn’t require an op-ed or a Facebook status. But relieve yourself of the secret shame which may be surrounding you. It doesn’t have to be bottled up. If my experience as a public official has shown anything to me, it’s that the general public is much more understanding than I ever would have anticipated. Telling my story has improved my life in a million different ways, and many of them deeply personal.

Tell your story. Tell it loudly, proudly and publicly. Be part of the moment which saves someone else.

 

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