Thursday, August 28, 2014

Robin Williams and Depression

Earlier this month, the world was saddened by the death of legendary comedian, Robin Williams.  The cruel irony in his passing was that he literally brightened the lives of millions of people, but he could not find enough light in his own life to keep living.  As has been reported, Williams committed suicide. 

Mollie (our office manager and in-office health coach) is quite the film buff; as am I.  When someone of the Robin Williams ilk dies, she and I have a conversation about it.  Our chat veered toward the topic of depression, which Williams had been battling, on and off, for many years, dating back to the death of one of his best friends, fellow comedian John Belushi.  As Mollie said, “Robin Williams made a life out of showing us our humanity, and their deaths are no different.”  So, let’s use this as an opportunity to take a broader view on topics such as depression and suicide.

“Depression is a complex thing, having environmental, social, emotional, spiritual and chemical causes,” Mollie emailed me as we furthered our discussion beyond Triad Upper Cervical Clinic’s walls.  Suicide is, too.  We often see these complex issues oversimplified through words like “selfishness” and “cowardice.”  Is this a black and white topic?  Or does it, as throughout life, feature many shades of gray?  Strength is a virtue that we celebrate, but not everyone has it to the extent necessary to will themselves out of the darker periods in their lives.  To imply that Williams was “selfish” or a “coward” because he could no longer muster the fortitude to keep fighting could well be viewed as too much of an assumption and fail to contextualize the reality of his situation (and others like him). 

We all like to think that we’re immune to these problems.  Yet, we are also a society that puts such a premium on being strong that we often, simultaneously, teach each other to hide signs of weakness subconsciously.  Read as a familiar theme?  How many of these newsletters over the years have been geared toward recognizing and getting the underlying causes of signs identified instead of masking/hiding them?  One of the fundamental human traits is self-preservation.  It is a lengthy, tumultuous process to reach a point where a human-being goes against its very nature and kills itself.  Using Mollie’s quote on the causes of depression, the process might look something like this (and this is merely an example): Robin was born to pretty sharp parents, who afforded him opportunities that are idealized on TV but present their own unique set of pressures (absentee mother and father who don’t give as much attention, in his case) and may have led to him “acting out” later in life when he became addicted to alcohol and cocaine.  He beat up his body and mind pretty harshly with his habits, enduring chemical substance abuse until his friend, Belushi, died of an overdose.  The emotional toll was pronounced for Williams.  One of his classmates at Juliard, Christopher Reeve, then had an accident that left him a paraplegic, further shaking Williams to his core.  Constantly in the public eye, Williams struggled with the trappings of stardom all the while.  Add to all of that two failed marriages and being a celebrity dad and you’ve got a potent recipe for major emotional problems, which eventually manifested as severe depression.  In all likelihood, he was medicated, further disrupting his already chemically imbalanced brain (the years of abuse) and ailing body (evidenced by his heart surgery in 2009). 

Does that narrative paint the picture of anything less than an intricate human-being with problems that in some way, shape, or form we all can relate to?  Take out the celebrity part and, odds are, you know someone exactly like him.  I can surely appreciate the point of view that devalues a person who does not value the gift of life, but I think it is a viewpoint that uses black and white brush strokes instead of the multi-colored pallet that makes up an individual person.  Williams was certainly colorful.  One of my colleagues commented on social media that, “In my opinion, suicide isn't ‘selfish’ to the person committing it. It's more of a demonstration of weakness. When someone is depressed, it is imperative to have a strong support system around them, so they, in turn, feel strong. Tough love doesn't work with someone who is depressed. They need to feel like they're worth something to someone, in order to avoid that weakness creeping in.”

Mental health issues are not well understood.  The manner in which they’re dealt with?  Even less understood.  I encounter people that wear like a badge of honor their prescriptions for depression and anxiety that alter their body chemistry, but feel it’s a social faux pas to seek counseling.  Which one is the band-aid and which was one helps solve the problem?  Yet, drugs are the popular route with greater acceptance in our society.  Reports are that Robin Williams was medicated, prompting his fellow Hollywood stars to speak out about their past use of popular anti-depressants and the suicidal thoughts that they triggered.  Messing around with brain and body chemistry is a dangerous game.  There’s actually nothing wrong with counseling…at all.  It is an essential cog in the wheel in making sure that you have your mental faculties in order amidst the chaotic nature of modern society’s overexposure to just about everything.  A good attitude is one of the pillars of health.  Counseling is often needed to achieve it.  Support is often needed to maintain it.  “Please, if you know someone who has a mental illness, give them a hug and explain to them why the mean so much to you,” my colleague concluded. “Make them feel like they are worth something, because in their mind - they aren't. You may save a life and initiate the first step out of depression.”

From the Upper Cervical perspective, body chemistry and the general neurologic governing of the emotional (limbic) system is regulated by the brainstem.  Here was Mollie’s final thought on the matter: “Upper Cervical Care can help. Keeping the brain-body connection operating at its best can help those who battle depression. It is not a replacement for other modalities, especially counseling and soul-work, but it can help those modalities be more effective.”

Feel free to discuss.  And RIP Robin Williams. 

Thinking good things for you, as always,

Dr. Chad

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