So it was not surprising that upon learning of his death at age 63, the public was overwhelmed with emotion. The shock of losing this man to suicide served as a cruel reminder that everyone, regardless of his station in life, is vulnerable to oppressive forces like mental illness and addiction. This widespread empathy, matched by private conversations around the dinner table and water cooler, is a new phenomenon that demonstrates just how much the stigma of suicide has diminished in recent years.
Twenty years ago, when musician Kurt Cobain died by suicide, the act of taking one’s life was commonly viewed with contempt, judged as selfishness and cowardice. Indeed, there are some corners where this view still lingers. Yet, in the days since Williams’ passing we’ve participated in a more candid discussion of suicide, the need for more research and better treatment, and what it means to live with mental illness.
Diverse and influential personalities like politico David Axelrod, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and television host Montel Williams, among others, seized the opportunity to talk about addiction and mental illness as chronic diseases and not casual choices.
The shift in public perception of why people turn to suicide is partly the result of a bittersweet victory to increase awareness of rising suicide rates amongst service members and veterans. The years-long media coverage has encouraged the public to see mental illness not as a weakness, but as a relentless storm that overwhelms even our bravest men and women.
It is a question that also concerns Dr. Mark Willenbring, former director of the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health. He told Mashable that while the stigma of mental illness has decreased, that won’t deliver every patient from his or her demons. Each case of mental illness is influenced by factors like family history, genetic risk and childhood trauma, which often combine in very unique ways to create anguish that feels intractable. For those who experience both mental illness and addiction, for example, suicide risk increases substantially.
The American health care system, Willenbring said, has traditionally treated addiction and mental health separately, which hinders our best efforts to help patients heal. Even when physicians try to integrate these aspects of care, they still lack the insight into mental disorders that would help them effectively treat more people. So while reducing stigma has been crucial in convincing people to seek medical care, it hasn’t yet yielded the kind of investment in research that doctors and patients desperately need. Read more…