Robin Williams' Suicide: Spotlight on Depression & Chronic Illness

Lessons We Need to Learn

Robin Williams' suicide has led to a new focus on depression, chronic illness and suicide. WireImage/Getty Images

The suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams is a tragedy that is all too understandable for some people with chronic illness. Depression is common in us, and some among us do fall prey to suicidal thoughts and actions.

When the news first broke about his death and the depression that preceded it, I understood. I've been through depression myself and I know how hard it can be to climb up out of it.

Some people never can.

It was common knowledge that he had been through rehab for addictions. That's a daily struggle that I can only begin to understand.

Then his wife released more news: he was also in the early stages of Parkinson's disease. That adds a whole new layer – facing chronic disease is terrifying. Knowing how you're likely to die? I've been fortunate not to have developed a terminal illness, so again, I can only imagine how hard that must be.

Even though fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) aren't fatal (although some research suggests a shorter life expectancy,) many of us will never recover enough to regain our pre-illness lives. We're faced with all those years ahead of us, struggling every day to feel better.

Knowing how poorly people understand fibromyalgia, ME/CFS and depression, it's inevitable that we're judged harshly by some. That held true for Robin Williams, when some people stated publicly that suicide is a "selfish" act.

First, that's simply a horrible thing to say. Second, based on my own experience, I have to think it's also wrong – that some people may believe they're doing it for their loved ones, but based on the false constructs created by major depression.

Early in my fibromyalgia days, during a period of depression, I was laying on the couch in pain and watching my husband try to deal with two little kids, the laundry, cooking dinner, and cleaning the house on his day off.

He'd just worked a 52-hour week and then had to turn around and pick up my slack. It hurt me to see how tired he looked and how hard he had to push himself because of my illness.

As much as I loved and needed him, I told him that I would take the kids and move in with my parents so that he'd be free to have a better life. I loved him enough that I wanted him to be happy, not tied to a wife who was no longer the woman he'd married.

He was horrified at the thought and assured me that he did not feel trapped, that even though it was hard, he was in it for the long haul and would always be happier with me than without me, no matter the circumstances.

Once I'd clawed my way out of depression, I understood that he really meant it. While I'd been depressed, though, I couldn't shake the belief that I was ruining his life. It was a false construct.

False constructs make us believe we're alone when we're not; that we'll always be miserable when realistically our lives can improve; that we're a burden on our loved ones and they'd be better off without us when they don't feel that way. False constructs take away our hope.

It's a sad fact that these kinds of constructs haunt a lot of people who are facing chronic illness.

However, it's also true that there is help.

Since Robin Williams' death, I've seen several people "come out" online about their own depression and thoughts of suicide. Every one of them has expressed fear over being open about it, but also profound relief. They say the support and encouragement they received surprised them and helped them understand how much they mean to people.

Certainly, that's not enough to "cure" depression. It can be a long road, but there's help for that, too.

If you believe you're depressed, talk to your doctor. Consider professional counseling. See if treatment works for you.

If you have thoughts of suicide, get help. Here's a number you can call, anytime:

  • 1-800-273-8255

It's a VA hotline, but anyone is welcome to call. The staffing and training there are better than at many local agencies, so you'll talk to someone who can really help you.

Also be aware that many of the drugs prescribed for our conditions (anti-depressants, epilepsy drugs) can cause suicidal thoughts and behaviors. If you're taking one of these medications and start having thoughts of harming yourself, contact your doctor right away. It may not be safe to stop taking the drug suddenly, so you should get proper instructions for weaning yourself off of it.

You and the people close to you should know the risk factors and warning signs associated with suicide and what to do about them. 

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