Robin Williams’ death Monday came as a punch to the gut. Williams was a singular talent, a comedian and actor with extraordinary range who comes along once in a generation.
But for many the news was as shocking as it was sad because the hugely successful Williams apparently hanged himself. How, they wondered, could a man who became famous and rich making millions of people laugh, do such a thing?
Williams, his publicist said, had been battling severe depression, and his death is a reminder that the demons of mental illness are extraordinarily powerful and blindly nondiscriminatory. Depression and other mental illnesses do not care what your portfolio looks like.
This tragedy should also alert the rest of us to what experts and sufferers have long known: Mental illness is a disease, like cancer, and should be treated as such. Even in 2014, society attaches a stigma to these conditions that makes it even harder for victims to seek help from an already overwhelmed system.
Those victims are more prevalent, and their situations more dire, than some realize. About 13 percent of people will suffer depression at some point in their lives. There are more than twice as many U.S. suicide victims – 40,000 – as homicide victims each year. An estimated 90 percent of those who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness, experts say. The World Health Organization says depression will be the world’s leading cause of disability and death by 2030.
The problem is severe in North Carolina. The Observer reported last year that 1.4 million North Carolinians need behavioral care. With a dramatic shortage of long-term beds, ER visits by mental health patients jumped 38 percent from 2008 to 2011.
State and local governments need to make mental health a higher priority. About a third of sufferers do not have insurance; Medicaid expansion would have helped a majority of them, but Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislature refused that federal money. The Charlotte region got a little relief this spring when Carolinas Healthcare opened a 66-bed facility in Davidson.
Former CNN CEO Tom Johnson endured depression for years before going public with his struggles. He told the Observer editorial board Tuesday that depression is treatable, and he hopes Williams’ suicide doesn’t prompt others to do the same. He wants those suffering to hear what columnist Art Buchwald, who also had depression, told him during a walk on Martha’s Vineyard: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Williams’ death was heartbreaking. But maybe his final performance will help employers, politicians and the public recognize mental illness as the public health problem that it is, and will encourage sufferers to seek help.