Comment of the Day: “Why Fox News’ Robin Williams Gaffe Matters”

Chris Marchener had several excellent posts today, but I am re-posting this one as the Comment of the Day for several reasons. It was in response to another commenter’s opinion that Fox News anchor Shepard Smith was not inaccurate to call Robin Williams a coward for succumbing to his suicidal urges. To the contrary, Smith was wrong, and his statement was cruel and irresponsible. Suicide arising out of mental illness runs—indeed, gallops—in my family: a great-uncle and three cousins killed themselves, and I knew the cousins and their battles with mental illness well. Sadly, much of the public is unschooled in what mental illness does and how and why it so often leads to suicide. Chris’s explanation of why Smith was exposing his ignorance may help enlighten some of the many who need enlightening. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “Why Fox News’ Robin Williams Gaffe Matters.”

It is quite easy to play armchair quarterback when you are not cursed with an affliction that renders you powerless to find comfort. You said “It’s borne of being unwilling to face the hard truths, make the hard changes, take the big risks needed to alter one’s own circumstances.” That perspective is fine when you are talking about behavioral sociopathy but when the chemistry in the brain is altered the individual has very little or any control over the outcome. I’ll bet that Robin Williams did more to face his demons than most anyone else would who do not also suffer from a chemical disorder of the brain. Unless you have some personal insight into his medical history a blanket claim of being a coward is unjust.

At this time, there is no prosthesis for remedying the destructive processes of mental illness other than using drugs to alter the brain chemistry. Unlike a prosthetic limb there is no guarantee that the medication will work as desired. Furthermore, as my wife and I have found out the hard way, long term use of anti-seizure and anti-depressives can have a high rate of mortality from the medications themselves.

Calling someone a coward after the fact is not merely unnecessary and hurtful it turns some people away from acknowledging the need for help. All reports show that he did seek help and did his best to confront his problems head on. Despite that he succumbed.

7 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Why Fox News’ Robin Williams Gaffe Matters”

  1. Suicide shouldn’t be glorified or shamed. When a person as well known and loved as Robin Williams commits suicide everyone in the public sphere thinks they have to say something about it. Frankly, I’d love to see more tributes, wonderful moments, remembrances, and retrospectives about him. As a teacher one of my favorite performances is a Rabbit Ears video about Pecos Bill. When he says that without Pecos Bill the wild west would have been plain old “mundane” and “there were the Mormons saying ‘Thank You!” I fall off my chair laughing.
    I just don’t think we need to know what everyone thinks about the last thing he did. If we need to speak to our children about the tragedy of it we can do that much more effectively one on one.

  2. Bravo, Chris. I haven’t commented here in a long time, but I continue to read and follow discussions and felt compelled to come out of the shadows following these comments. The rampant and vile misinformation spread among the lay community (and sadly the medical one as well, as I recently discovered during my time in nursing school) regarding those who succumb to depression and other Axis I disorders is not only lacking in basic human compassion, but keeps in place the dangerous stigmas surrounding those with mental illness. Committing suicide after years or perhaps decades of struggle with crippling mental illness is not cowardly; it’s a tragedy. Full stop.

    As an aside, my Facebook feed exploded yesterday with thoughts and reflections from friends regarding Robin Williams. We all said the same thing; we never knew him personally, but he was a ubiquitous presence during our childhoods and adolescence. Obviously, he had a tremendous career beyond simply Aladdin, Hook, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire (my personal favorite comedy of his was The Birdcage), but he was so integral to our early years. It really feels as though we’ve lost a friend.

  3. And for so many, finding the right treatment is the worst part, the ‘stiff upper lip and grit are a cultural standard. If it can’t be fixed by a pill, coverage runs out quickly, most health plans I’ve seen are 3 visits max, which isn’t much more than a bandaid.

    I prefer the tributes, because however he died, his talent was the gift he left behind. That should not be lost due to the talking heads who cannot handle respectful silence.

  4. Can we not find a way to, you know, safely disable the part of the brain that makes it possibler to feel sad? I mean, a dude who suffered a stroke now feels happy all the time because his brain can not feel any other way. Our brains no more need the capacity to feel sadness than our skin needs smallpox pustules.

    If we could safely duplicate the effects of that stroke, we could have paradise.

  5. I have bipolar disorder (type I) and PTSD (from combat). When I hear someone making a comment like Smith’s, I find myself wishing I could somehow give this person just one day of the worst of this. I firmly believe that everybody wants desperately to live, but some people find themselves immersed in pain so excruciating and absolutely intolerable, that even this very powerful instinct is overwhelmed.

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