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    Posted August 12, 2014 by
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    In Memoriam

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    Robin Williams, Depression, and What That Actually Means

    We like to think of mental illness as a noun. It’s a “thing” that happens to people. In doing this, we concentrate on the mental or cognitive representation of what were actually referring to. This is overall the main problem with language: we get lost in the superficial level of the symbol and forget the underlying subjective reality it’s meant to refer to.

    I just watched an interview between Don Lemon and the actor Todd Bridges, who was on to discuss the stigma of mental illness. The interview itself demonstrates what the problem is. When people who deal with mental illness describe their experiences with mental illness, they often experience feelings of shame and anxiety while they talk about it. This results in a change of feeling state for the listener. As we all know, it is painful - jarring - uncomfortable - to listen to people who feel stressed, anxious, or shamed. There’s a pure mirroring occurring. We “pick” up, as if by infection, their emotional or energetic state.

    When people feel the need to avoid talking about mental illness, its because of this: how they feel when they talk about it. And by implication, the person they feel themselves becoming when they feel that way. It is human instinct to seek aslyum from negative feelings: they jeopardize the mental feasibility of the organism, just as animals adapt to conditions in their environment, an animals consciousness adapts to its conditions of social and emotional experiences.

    The problem is, people aren’t aware of this. Something called “dissociation” happens to them. So, from the example from before, listening to Todd Bridges talk and run on while Don Lemon was moving to ending the interview - and kept talking - this is what it means: to accept HIS vulnerability, as not simply his - but as something inherent to the human condition - to being human. In short, Todd Bridges anxiety is our OWN anxiety. To avoid the experience of vulnerability - his own, and OUR own to the image of him feeling this way - means we wont effectively be able as a society to discuss mental illness.

    Discussing mental illness, from the get go, should extend from a common understanding that WERE ALL VULNERABLE to it. This pretension we put on about ourselves as invulnerable to the whims of life - to the changes that could be - is self destructive in the long run, as it denies the fact that were all subject to the same realities, conditions, and pains that may emerge. Caring about one another means accepting our vulnerabilities, and as Dan Siegel once put it, to show kindness means to honor one another’s vulnerabilities.

    I feel sad that Robin Williams, the depressive, the man who was vulnerable to this experience, couldn’t feel the extent that he felt that way, and didn’t feel ok to share that experience publicly. I don’t know Robin Williams, but I suspect he tried to hide that part from himself. He wanted to push it away, had trouble integrating it. And my saying this is in no way shape or form meant to belittle the genius that was Robin Williams. Rather, it’s meant to highlight the context he lived within: our society. And his response to his own experience of depression is embedded in a larger relational context that each of us are subject to.

    Mental illness is not a noun, but a verb. It is a process. It is US, who we are, and feel ourselves to be, from moment to moment. It is how we think in social situations - what we do - how we adapt. Mental illness is an experience. To even talk to someone with mental illness means you will have to SHARE, at some bodily level, the nature of that experience.

    I truly do hope that the death of Robin Williams can inspire our society to deepen our exploration into what it means to talk about mental illness. And by doing so, we can sanctify Robin Williams memory: only a man of his comic and dramatic genius could inspire such a inward reflection on our own common experiences.
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