If there is one thing all readers can agree upon it is this. Because those of us who read books so passionately understand the power of words. We understand just how quickly an idea can spread. What many of us can not understand is how we, as an enlightened First World society, could have reached the 21st-century with all of it's technological advances and medical innovations that would have been nothing short of miraculous a mere one hundred years ago, while remaining willfully ignorant of the reality and validity of mental illness.
We hear it all time: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You just need to decide to be happy. Exercise will fix it. You're just being selfish.
And in a way it makes sense. We live in a country whose motto has always been anything is possible for those willing to work for it. We are willing to cut a little slack for those who obviously (read: visibly) cannot work for it: disabled folk in a wheelchair, missing a limb, you know...the ones you can see are unable to work for the American dream. But what about those who are struggling with an illness you can't see? As a general rule of thumb, Americans aren't very tolerant of those folks. Ask anyone who suffers from fibromyalgia about that. If it isn't visible, it doesn't exist.
As for mental illness, well, this is the ultimate invisible disease. And sadly, many Americans still refuse to see it as a disease. Instead, they view it as a weakness or a personality flaw, throwing it in the same category as laziness or deceptiveness. A person can change these flaws, right? Straighten up and fly right. Work hard and reap rewards. These are Americanisms so oft repeated that we revert to them almost automatically whenever we see anyone not operating optimally with no visible injury hampering them.
This refusal to recognize the severity of mental disorders stems from an embarrassing lack of education. How many people, for example, have been heard to say, "I was depressed once, but I just focused on being happy and I got over it." Those who do understand the nature of clinical depression will immediately recognize the what an utter ludicrous statement that is....such a person may have experienced momentary sadness, a perfectly natural (and temporary) emotion, but not clinical depression. Failure to educate our students and ourselves about the true nature of mental disorders is the root of the problem.
Is it any wonder then that those suffering with the crippling mental disorders such as clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorder, and too many others to name, sometimes feel the battle is simply too hard to fight? Isn't it enough that they quietly battle their demons in secret, hiding it from a disbelieving society that scorns their plight and offers condescending platitudes?
Shame on us.
But if words and ideas can change the world, then let it start with changing us. Because we need to change how we see this illness. We need to validate this illness. We need to help, not hinder, those who fight this illness. And this begins with educating ourselves with words and ideas. The information is out there. Find it. Read it. And once we've done that, do what readers do best: read and share words and ideas. Bibliophiles are incredibly empathetic people, owing to the books we read. We need to be reading the right books. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and her poetry, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, and Darkness Visible by William Styron are but a few of the books that address or have key characters grappling with mental illness. Education first, then empathy through reading, and vocal sharing of ideas. It's a small start, but it has to start somewhere.
His death shouldn't be in vain.
Farewell, Robin Williams. Find peace, wherever you are.