Amidst the outpouring of sadness and sympathy over the death of Robin Williams come the inevitable accusations of selfishness and cowardice. Early this morning I heard a woman at work snidely remark that she was surprised it had taken him this long. I had to walk away.

Mental illness is real and it is crippling. Suicide is not a decision that’s taken lightly. It is sought after as a (misguided) way to escape crushing pain and despair. The demon of depression and its many friends are very crafty and very powerful.

Mental illness is all around us and doesn’t conform to society’s stereotype of an unstable or let’s just say it, a crazy person. Some people with mental illness have become masters of disguise, hiding their pain behind successful careers, accomplishments, and relationships. They pay their bills on time, show up to work, and have meaningful interactions with people. But they have to hide their pain in the shadows lest anyone find out.

Unfortunately there is a pervasive and poisonous stigma towards mental illness in our society. People are afraid to seek treatment for fear of being judged as weak, unreliable, or even unemployable. There are thousands of people who need treatment but can’t afford it or it’s not available in their community.

Bias against mental illness has made its way into our everyday vernacular. People are quick to make a quip that someone is “off their meds” or “bipolar” if a person happens to be in a bad mood one day or acts out of character. That is a real disorder that requires proper medical diagnosis, and that person you’re joking about probably doesn’t have it. Apparently we’re ALL “ADD” and “OCD” since we don’t like boring meetings and like our files arranged in a certain way. Those are real disorders that require proper medical diagnosis, and you probably don’t have them. If everyone in the country were truly ADD and OCD and required treatment I would be snatching up stock in pharmaceutical companies as quickly as I could. 

So how can the martial arts community help? There is no one-size-fits-all treatment or coping for the vast array of mental illnesses and disorders. While martial arts are NOT a replacement for clinical treatment they can certainly be an accompaniment. The quieting of the mind through physical practice is profound. Martial arts schools and gyms can provide safe environments with caring and healthy role models for both kids and adults.  Instructors and parents can be on the lookout for children who may be showing early signs of mental problems, and adults who have their own mental or emotional problems can look to martial arts as a way to channel their energy in a positive way and build their self-confidence.

Please stop the jokes and the judgment. People’s lives are on the line, and far too often they lose the battle like Mr. Williams did.

“Good night, sweet prince: and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

3 thoughts on “Sparring with Demons – a Response to the Death of Robin Williams and the Societal Stigma of Mental Illness

  1. People can be cruel and unforgiving; it’s actually the very nature of mankind. Depression is a serious and devastating problem for many and money and fame does not ease its crippling effects. Forget about “who” Mr. Williams was … he was a fellow human-being who sadly failed in receiving the help he needed to survive. Every life is precious and no life can be replaced. I applaud your post and wish for all of us to come to the point in our lives where we can understand the importance of “caring” for each other again.

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