No one gets through life unscarred. This we know. But those who suffer from one of the many forms of depression and bipolar disorder — some 10 million Americans — deal with a devastating disease that too few around them understand.
Robin Williams was one of America’s most beloved comedians and actors. His love for all things San Francisco made him a Bay Area icon. Examples of his giving nature and his willingness to reach out and support charitable causes abound. If Williams — with all of his wealth, resources and personal support — couldn’t find a way to live with his demons, think how hard it is for those who struggle to hold a job and support a family or, even worse, live on the streets.
It’s impossible to know what was going through Williams’ mind as he dealt with his drug addictions, depression and bipolar tendencies. We can only hope that his death will shock us all into a better understanding of mental illness. We suspect if he knew that would happen, it would give him as much pleasure as any of his performances.
Our understanding of mental disorders has grown enormously in recent decades, but researchers and practitioners know we are nowhere near fully understanding how the brain operates and how it can go wrong.
The hardest thing to get across, especially to people who have never experienced anything like depression, is that mental health disorders are physical diseases little different from heart or bone disease except in our lack of understanding of the mind — and except for the stigma that once was broadly attached to them and even today is common.
Even when we know intellectually that mental illness is a disease, too often we look away. This is especially true when confronted by victims wandering the streets, their odd or incoherent behavior representing a cry for help. But it can also be true of friends and loved ones.
Depression and biopolar disorders are treatable, if not curable, in the vast majority of cases. Medication allows many people to lead normal lives. Unfortunately, too little money is going into research to better understand the mind and its disorders. The World Health Organization reports that major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder account for an estimated 20 percent of total disability from all diseases and injuries. But nationally, spending on mental health research is a tenth of what’s spent on cancer and half the amount on heart disease.
People who suffer from depression often feel the world would be better a better place without them. How wrong they are. How very wrong Robin Williams was. In his memory, let’s strive for greater understanding — and greater compassion for those fighting the demons that claimed him.
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