Higher Ground: What we can learn from Robin Williams

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Last week, there was a disturbance in the Force: The world lost a great giver of light, Robin Williams.

The sky above metro Detroit, where Williams spent his childhood, seemed to know this loss intimately, and flooded the region. The wake of the event still ripples throughout the world, and there are tributes to Williams around the globe. From the theaters on Broadway to Syrian rebels to planning the next Emmy awards, people are honoring the actor ... fans are even demanding a character be created in the video game "Legend of Zelda."

There was also the ripple of anger, as often follows a tremendous, inexplicable loss: How dare he take his life? How dare he rob the world of the joy he brought to us? Suicide is so selfish. Didn't he know how much he was loved? How could he suffer more than others who've been through tremendous poverty and war?

And of course the question: Why?

In the search for answers, those who suffer from crippling depression were quick to jump to his defense against those who called him "selfish," using what boils down to a "you just don't understand unless you've been there." Both are understandable, yet segregating, assertions.

Then came the news that Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Reports came in that the disease played a role in his suicide — that he was depressed as a result of the diagnosis, that the disease can cause depression, and that Williams was on a "cocktail" of meds, "which was a work in progress to get right — [and] also had a negative effect on his emotional state."

In the desire to answer the why of the tragedy, Williams' friends have pointed to that "cocktail" of meds. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Lexapro, Paxil, and Zoloft, used to treat anxiety and depression, are known to have a side effect of suicidal thoughts, especially in those under 25. Reports have said that while he was suffering from severe depression, just hours before his death he had a meeting where he planned out future activities, and seemed hopeful — not the common action of someone planning, or on the verge of, a suicide. Williams was known to have been battling depression for years. Could it have been the drugs that pushed him into suicide? Certainly, they do help many people. But not all.

We may never know why Robin Williams killed himself. Perhaps the why, at this point, isn't important. Perhaps, in our collective society's loss, we can take this as an opportunity to expand the national and community dialogue about mental health and treatment — the last gift from a man known for bringing happiness is one that has given us deep need for understanding.

This is the opportunity to have compassion and reach outside of our selves to our fellow humans and let them know we love them and care for them. Male depression is now in the spotlight, and the conversation about suicide and depression and anxiety treatments are now a part of a global dialogue. We must take great care to thoughtfully listen, and to understand each other at this time; to appreciate each other as we reconcile the suicide of Robin Williams with our own mental health experience, and the experience of our nation.

Robin Williams has left the world's stage we all share. Let us lift him higher with our affection and the joy he brought us, and through that, lift ourselves and with compassion, rise with our loved ones and our communities. — mt

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