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only group that can be locked up without trial and medicated against their will, even if they are deemed capable of making decisions for themselves.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the illness idea, though, is that it can stop us trying to understand the broader context: the events and circumstances of our lives and how we respond to them. The truth is that we’re all vulnerable to mental health problems given the right circumstances. And we never know when those circumstances might befall us, pitching us towards a tipping point that we hadn’t perceived to be there.
Those who live ordinary lives may find it hard to fathom that someone like Robin Williams could be miserable enough to want to die. We forget that celebrity inevitably brings its own problems. And once you’ve reached a star-studded pinnacle, there’s nowhere to go but down. Even before we learned that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, we didn’t have to look far to find possible causes of profound sadness in Robin Williams’ life. He had acknowledged difficulties with both drugs and alcohol, the latter being a factor in one of his two divorces. And he was in financial difficulty, something that had him taking TV and film roles he would have preferred not to have taken.
The truth is that suicide is complicated,
and the combination of circumstances, emotions and motivations that precede a suicide attempt will be different for each person. While many people who kill themselves have been experiencing the extreme distress we might think of as depression, that’s not always the case and is rarely the whole explanation.
People have been known to kill themselves as a consequence of intense shame, or because they see no way out of a moral dilemma or a future that appears bleak. Many who attempt suicide may not really want to die, but seek instead to escape unbearable psychic pain. There are those with ongoing difficulties who may, in part – and perhaps misguidedly given the often profound effect of a suicide on the person’s family – be seeking to release another from what they see as a burden.
And although it may be uncomfortable to think about, for some people the motivations may involve anger as well as desperation. It is important to be open to the range of meanings of a suicidal act and to acknowledge that those left behind may also experience complex and sometimes bitter feelings. Invoking the idea of illness can sometimes be helpful, but it isn’t the only way of connecting to people’s despair and of offering compassion and help without making value judgements. An alternative is simply to recognise that people can have a tough time. Surely that should be enough.
Artwork by Bogdan Semeniuk