Tucked away in a box in my basement is a black and white photo with the words “Make Fun, Not War” scrawled in black ink above the actor’s signature. When I was in third grade, during our lesson on business letters I wrote to Robin Williams, telling him how I was a fan and wanted a picture. Williams was one of the only actors who responded to us children, sending autographed photos to me and several of my classmates. But for all the laughter and smiles he brought to everyone, from children to troops overseas, we now know he personally suffered, and this past August the world lost this comedic genius to suicide.
I don’t know anyone who wasn’t touched by his passing. My Twitter feed and Facebook timeline overflowed with memories and heartbreak in the first days, followed by blog posts and articles ranging from personal confessions of similar struggles with depression to pleas for the suffering to seek help and for friends and family to reach out. Media and bloggers alike spoke out against suicide, and the nation observed National Suicide Prevention Week just four short weeks after he passed.
Yet the public tone shifted a month or so later, when terminal cancer patient Brittany Maynard spoke up. Suicide was no longer something to prevent, but a decision to laud, bravery in the face of suffering, a dignified death.
The Suicide Struggle of the Non-Terminal Sufferer
When comparing the plights of Williams and Maynard, it is perhaps easy to conclude that one is worse than the other, that a disease that kills is more devastating than a manageable one. Now, most wouldn’t dare insist on classifying mental health problems as terminal illness, but they are. While severe depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress may not show signs of shortening one’s life, there should be no denying that these ailments can, and often do, take a toll on the body and mind. For the person suffering, it certainly can feel terminal, but slow. Unlike a cancer diagnosis that brings the hard news of having a handful of months or even years left, those with severe depression face a normal lifespan’s worth of suffering and pain.
Even with medication and treatment, depression sufferers face public stigma. There’s no shame in speaking out about brain cancer, a disease completely outside of one’s control. But as Heather Wilson, a military spouse involved with American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says:
I think a huge point here is that mental illness, especially in men who are supposed to be tough, is such a stigma. It’s okay to talk about brain cancer. It’s not something that we make people feel ashamed of because they can’t control it. So many people think, ‘Well, we can control our feelings, emotions and actions.’
This stigma may leave the mental health sufferer feeling more alone, more distraught, and more desperate for relief.
We Can’t Prevent and Encourage Suicide
While both terminal and non-terminal sufferers may seek to end their life, society responds to each differently. The stage-four cancer victim is encouraged to “die with dignity,” to escape her short life sentence, but those suffering from non-terminal, manageable conditions are told to not give up and to seek help. Suicide is only acceptable and honorable as long as the pain is deemed bad enough and the effect on life expectancy great enough. This double standard is beyond ridiculous.
On one hand, we’re lauding the terminal patient as heroic and courageous, while on the other telling the non-terminal their pain isn’t as bad as they claim, their suffering isn’t worthy of wanting to escape. We’re telling the Brittany Maynards of the world “We believe you, your pain, your fear. Your struggle is hard, and you’re right to want to avoid it,” then turning around to tell the Robin Williams’ of the world, “Sorry, but I think you’re blowing your situation a bit out of proportion. It’s not as bad as you claim.”
Either life is worth living, regardless of pain and tribulation, or it’s not. We can’t have it both ways. To attempt to do so downplays the suffering of so many, from the severely depressed to the bullied teen to the wounded war veteran.
Let’s Redefine Bravery
Speaking of veterans, exactly what message are we sending them when we call people brave for giving up and wanting to “die with dignity”? Along with Wesley J. Smith, who writes about how actor Michael Landon’s decision to face pancreatic cancer squarely won accolades in the early ’90s, I fail to see the bravery in taking some pills and falling asleep to escape a tragic medical diagnosis. I fail to see the bravery in giving up and running away from a horrifying future. No, bravery is throwing your body on a grenade to save your comrades. Bravery is continuing to fight the enemy even after you’ve sustained fatal wounds. Bravery is sacrificing your hand to save your teammates and then re-enlisting, despite your prosthesis.
With the Veterans Affairs reporting veterans commit suicide at a rate of 22 per day, we can’t afford to redefine bravery and continue with this double standard for suicide. Even if the “many experts” cited by the Los Angeles Times are correct that military service is no factor in most of these veterans’ decisions to die, the fact remains that suicide is the choice for many. Suicide prevention and mental health remains a top priority for our military, and this public doublespeak of “suicide is okay in that situation, but a no-no for the other” undermines the progress veterans have made.
Let’s instead speak with one voice to all who suffer, regardless of the degree or the span of that suffering. Let’s provide help, support, love, and understanding, regardless of a person’s plight. Let’s be clear in our compassion, regardless of the condition. Let’s end the doublespeak and fight to prevent suicide—wherever it is being considered and for whatever reason.