A Few Thoughts on the Death of Robin Williams

Trigger Warning: Suicide, End-of-Life Decisions

By now you have probably heard that actor and comedian Robin Williams committed suicide yesterday. I have a few thoughts related to this.

Depression is not the only mental illness that can cause suicide. Williams suffered from bipolar disorder, not depressive disorder. Please, if you are going to use his death as an opportunity to spread awareness regarding mental illness, do so accurately. (I am aware of reports that he was depressed, but that is referring to depression as a symptom. It is a symptom of numerous disorders, including major depressive disorder (which is what is meant when you say someone “has depression”) and bipolar disorder.)

As an atheist, I believe that each human life is unique, infinitely valuable, brief, and irreplaceable; that once gone, a person is lost forever and utterly irretrievable. As a survivor of a suicide attempt, I am very grateful that when I reached out in fear afterwards, people were there to help me and get me into treatment. As someone who has intervened in the suicide attempt of a loved one, I am very glad I was there to do so.

That said, there is a very fine line to walk between recognizing that suicidal ideation and impulses can be a symptom of some psychological disorders, and respecting the unlimited right of individuals to make their own end-of-life decisions. If a person judges that they are in unbearable pain, it is not relevant whether that pain is psychological or physiological; they have every right to decide to end it.

That said, suicidal impulses are a symptom of multiple psychological disorders, and a treatable symptom. Consent issues become very complex where life-threatening illness is concerned; and even moreso where those diseases distort the sufferer’s thoughts and feelings. if a person’s suicidal impulse comes not from their “natural” selves but from their disease, is intervening any different than intervening to help a person having a heart attack? As always, the right thing to do depends heavily on one’s relationship with the person. A doctor or a loved one has very different rights and responsibilities than a stranger. In this case, I must assume everyone reading this was a stranger to Mr. Williams; as such, we have no right to intervene in his desire to die or to judge it after the fact.

This was not a “waste,” or any sort of violation; Mr. Williams clearly felt his pain was unbearable and chose to end it. None of us are close enough to him to be able to see whether this was an impulse sparked by his disease or a final, free choice in the face of pain no longer bearable (and indeed, this is a false dichotomy; it was almost certainly some blend of both). However, given that we cannot see from here which it was, out of respect for him, the basic respect due any person, we must assume that his choice was the best choice available from his perspective.

This is not to say that mourning is wrong. Every death is a tragedy. Even where the death itself is blessed release, the circumstances that made it such are inevitably horrific. Nor is there anything wrong with using this as an opportunity to spread awareness about and acceptance of mental illness, as that could help people seek treatment or reduce the unnecessary suffering they experience as a consequence of the stigma against mental illness. All I am saying is that I believe we should do this respectfully.

Suicide and depression support hotlines for multiple countries.

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