In light of Robin Williams’s recent suicide, I found myself avoiding all news reports about it because my heart just could not take it anymore. Not necessarily because I am a fan and he was an amazing comedian, but also because of the nature of my job in the hospital, in inpatient psychiatry where I deal with suicidal patients with severe mental illness every single day. I had no emotional capacity to process his death, especially since he was an example of someone who could live successfully with mental illness. He was a symbol of hope to many of our patients who also have depression and/or bipolar, or anything really.
But this is not about Robin Williams; if anything, this is about family members of those with mental illness. After the news of Williams’s death, all I could think about was Zelda and the rest of their family. For as long as I have been working in inpatient psychiatry, the moments that really stick with me have not been my one-on-one moments with the patients; it has been the family meetings.
Family members are often the forgotten pieces of how mental illness affects a person. We often forget that there are parents, siblings and spouses that are incredibly affected by one’s mental illness. There is something so much more difficult about helping a single dad process his son’s first psychiatric hospitalization, sitting there next to the psychiatrist as she tells him that his son is having a late onset of schizophrenia. It has been much more difficult to watch a mother in tears as she asks what she could have done differently to prevent her grown adult child from hearing homicidal auditory hallucinations. Talking to patients about how their doing feels like a piece of cake compared to trying to talk to a young daughter about her mother’s suicide attempt. I don’t know why that is, but those are the moments where I want to hide in the chart room and cry. It’s so hard to watch someone feel helpless about someone they love.
We sympathize and empathize with our patients as they learn to journey through life with mental illness, giving them resources and counseling and medication…but once they leave our hospital doors, they aren’t on our watch anymore. Now it is up to the daughters, husbands, wives, partners, siblings and cousins of our patients to support them and help them in their healing process. And it’s not easy.
I do think that a huge part of it has to do with the stigma behind mental health. The language we use is horrible, saying “my son has gone crazy” or “he’s bipolar” is not strengths-based, nor is it empowering. People are not their diagnoses; they are individuals with a diagnosis. He has bipolar, he is not bipolar. People are more than just their mental illness; they are artists, mathematicians, comedians, parents, teachers, friends.
I think the more we take steps to get rid of the stigma of mental health, we can talk much more openly about how we as a community can support those with mental illness and supporting family members of those with mental illness. More importantly, we need to instill hope in family members and the individuals with mental illness, reminding them all that it is not a death sentence, but merely an explanation for what they are going through in this time in their life. If anything, my hope is that mental health diagnoses are really a starting point for people and their families to know what the next steps are, knowing there are next steps towards living a life healthily with a mental illness.
Lastly, to even have a supportive family involved is a huge sign of a great prognosis. I see too many patients who come through our doors who have no family or have burned all their bridges with family, often getting re-admitted over and over again. So, to those of us with family members who have a mental illness, the best step towards their recovery is actually having a loving family, walking alongside them in this journey.