An outpour of sympathy and new awareness spilled in the wake of the death of Robin Williams. Equally there has been an outcry of condemnation against anyone who questioned the reasons as to why he would want to take his own life. Calling someone selfish is an act of stigmatisation and cruelty. Some motivated by spite as in the case of Fox News, some misgivings out of ignorance like our own health secretary Jeremy Hunt, and finally out of a sense of Christian morality.
The backlash against these people is understandable because people want to see themselves as being on the side of the downtrodden victim. However, to brand mentally ill people as victims entirely misunderstands the nature of most people with these conditions. It’s perfectly possible to brand the act of suicide as selfish without branding it the absolute indicator of someone’s moral character.
I don’t want to comment on the path Robin Williams took before his decision. People much more qualified than me can cover the background to personal debt and Parkinson’s. I didn’t know him, so I can’t comment on whether he was a good person. Suicide, whatever the background, is still selfish. It leaves victims around you; the oft quoted statistic is each suicide leaves behind on average six to ten survivors. Suicide imposes a torture on them equal to battles with depression.
Anxiety, hopelessness, guilt, everything someone who tries to escape through killing themselves transfers onto other people. It never reduces a burden, it is never a selfless act. You may respond to this by saying depressed people suffer from a disease and therefore have no control over their actions. This is nonsense.
Depression and other mental disorders cause mental suffering. They don’t turn you into a mental and a moral cripple.
Not only is the notion is depressed people have no autonomy dehumanising, but it’s also exceptionally dangerous. Suicide is rarely something done spontaneously: it’s a process. Presenting suicide attempts as the inevitable outcome of mental suffering is a sure fire way to keep it alive. Depressed people need to be selfish, but an act causing so much unnecessary harm isn’t necessary.
I don’t like to talk about my own mental health background publicly, but sadly in these debates it’s the only way to get a pass into the conversation. I’ve tried to take my own life, and was shocked and uplifted when people came and helped me to restart my life in the aftermath. When I posted some initial thoughts about this on Twitter I received a message from someone I used to know over Facebook, hur ling abuse at me for suggesting suicide attempts could be selfish. When I disclosed my history to them their shit couldn’t crawl up their arse quickly enough. It wasn’t irritating because they hurled abuse at me; some opinions are awful enough to have abuse directed toward them. What was irritating is the validity of my opinion changed because I revealed a part of my personal history, because I was suffering from some sort of disease I had to be pandered to. Even if my opinions were wrong, I had to be treated as a delicate flower.
To put a cringeworthy spin on a trite quote: I am not a disease. I am a free man. A diagnosis of mental illness should stimulate empathy and understanding, but it doesn’t put you outside the obligations to others everyone else should too abide by. Some mentally ill people may feel better perceiving themselves as victims- it’s your choice, but you must accept this self imposed identity is a choice. Choice, whatever people may say, isn’t the sole preserve of the healthy.