Not been blogging for a bit but wanted to write with a bit more space about something I’ve been thinking about today in relation to Robin William’s suicide, which seems to have been the most talked about celebrity loss I can remember in quite a while.
I saw a post on the Feminist Breeder facebook page for for earlier asking for people not to say that Robin Williams had killed himself, as he had died from an illness – depression.
As some people will be aware, depression is something that has hit hard at people I love very much over the years – and that isn’t unusual, with it being (along with anxiety) the most common of mental disorders. The messy borderline between mental and physical illness is something which has interested me for a long time – I spent one Summer over ten years ago now meeting people who had or had had ME looking at it as a case study of something indefinitely hovering on the borders of both, and what the fight for recognition of ME as a physical illness tells us about how society treats people with psychological disorders.
I personally believe that depression is a normal human state (although fortunately not one we all experience) rather than an illness – or rather, I think that our genes and brain structure etc mean some people are more likely to experience it, but it is essentially a reaction to problems in the environment. This is controversial, and on first reading it sounds like I’m being dismissive to the condition in the same way that the person making the point that Williams died from it is trying to fight against. People don’t respect mental illnesses as “serious” in the way they do physical illnesses, and by challenging the assertion that depression is a biological problem within the individual, it could be argued that I am suggesting it isn’t real or damaging, and more crucially, reinforcing the line that depression is not an illness, therefore it is something people can alter if they just make better life choices.
I don’t like the bio-medical model of depression, because it allows society to abdicate responsibility for fixing damaging social structures – and in particular the culture of stress – which allow it to flourish. But I agree that when a suicide takes place when someone has depression, they haven’t really killed themselves. In the same way that a labourer who has spent years surrounded by asbestos hasn’t killed themself, or the same way that a person born in Glasgow hasn’t chosen to end their life years before someone from Kensington, or the same way that someone who spends their life in a high stress job hasn’t chosen to have a heart attack.
It is a common reaction when someone takes their own life to think of them as selfish or as a person who cares more for themselves than the people they will damage by leaving them behind. But it’s a reaction that has no understanding of what depression is or the effect it has. People who commit suicide as a result of depression don’t die because they are putting themselves first in a selfish way; they die because the world has finally broken them.