By Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF
Robin Williams’ suicide reminds us that mental illness is a real, chronic disease.
I lost a beautiful, talented high school student to suicide many years ago.
I was teaching choirs at a Catholic high school in Cleveland, and drove into the Toledo area with a few fellow teachers. We visited Tony Packo’s, the Toledo Zoo and the grounds of what is now Lourdes University in Sylvania. After a fun, day trip, we drove back to Cleveland. When I arrived home, I received a phone call from one of my student’s mothers.
“Beth is dead. She took her own life with an overdose of pills.”
I was stunned, saddened and did not understand what happened. Beth’s mother said her daughter was excited that she made the select show choir at school, but had seemed “a little sad.” She said Beth did a lot of organizing around the house: cleaning out her drawers and closets, organizing her books and music--doing, in hindsight, what is known as doing the last things. Faculty and some students talked about her suicide in hushed voices…there was a stigma about it.
The high school sophomore had depression. My choir with her fellow choir members sang at her funeral. There followed a rash of sorrow in the music department, along with assemblies from local universities which addressed suicide. I just happened to find a note from her former boyfriend on my desk, saying he missed Beth and wanted to join her. I called the school office immediately. Her boyfriend attempted suicide, but lived and went to counseling right away.
I learned that you never take a person’s talk of suicide lightly-you must get them help.
When Robin Williams took his own life, he suffered from severe depression. Some people asked why he did not get help with all his wealth. It just is not that simple with mental illness. Maybe the celebrity status of Williams can help bring about an awareness and education of all of us on mental illness.
In the news, we are bombarded by celebrities who marry for a matter of days and divorce. I am appalled at the mockery of the sacred bond of marriage. Financial or bank executives embezzle millions of dollars of working people’s money and destroy countless lives and peoples’ retirements. I think these individuals deserve to be stigmatized—not those who have a mental illness through no fault of their own.
The National Institute of Mental Health explains that about 16-20% of the general population has mental illness but do well when supported by a circle of family, friends and a faith community.
Just as cancer, arthritis, or alcoholism is a disease, mental illness is too.
Writer Richard Rohr wisely reflects: “God is not threatened by differences. It’s we who are.”
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18