Opinion Columns & Blogs

Could Robin Williams’ suicide become a conversation changer?

How long before Ferguson fatigue sets in? How soon before our rapt attention to the uproar over the killing of Michael Brown begins to flag? And not because we don’t care. We do. It’s just that we know that, in all likelihood, nothing will come of it.

If we’ve learned anything in the aftermath of the repetitive crises that roil the nation – mass shootings, celebrity drug overdoses, police murders of innocent young black men – it’s that we learn nothing. The same incidents occur and recur, and nothing of significance changes.

And, like a nation afflicted with mass attention-deficit disorder, we shift our focus as soon as the next horror or injustice is thrust onto center stage by a insatiable media.

There’s hope, however, that the suicide of Robin Williams won’t follow this pattern. There’s hope that something will come of it.

Because it’s different than the other fleeting national obsessions. It’s not divisive. There’s no one to blame. There’s no side to take. There’s no useless rhetoric to spew to mollify our own sense of powerlessness.

Sure, mental-health policies are seriously in need of reform. Availability of care is tragically limited by avaricious insurance companies, inadequate facilities and ineffective policies. There are inequities and inadequacies galore.

But not in Williams’ case. He had access to whatever help he needed. So this isn’t about society’s failure. This is about one thing only: depression, a sickness of the soul that affects nearly 8 percent of Americans. All we can do is listen and learn and try to understand.

We can try to understand that depression – the leading cause of medical disability in the United States and, if untreated, the leading cause of suicide – isn’t weakness or a character flaw; that it can be treated in a variety of ways; that it’s not shameful or embarrassing to seek help.

“The use of medications and/or specific psychotherapeutic techniques has proven very effective in the treatment of major depression, but this disorder is still misconstrued as a sign of weakness, rather than being recognized as an illness,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

And because of that, fewer than 1 in 3 people with depression seek help, the CDC says. Only four out of 10 people with severe depression reach out to a mental-health professional.

There are ongoing efforts to remove the stigma. Actress Glenn Close began an organization, Bring Change 2 Mind, on behalf of her sister. The National Institute of Mental Health presented a two-year media campaign called Real Men Real Depression, to take the macho out of mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has become a powerful advocate for dialogue about mental illness.

Depression is a scourge that ruins lives and ends them. It’s estimated to cost employers $17 billion to $44 billion in lost employee workdays a year.

Perhaps Mrs. Doubtfire’s tortured soul can propel us to destigmatize this god-awful disease.