I‘ve been spending the past few waking hours watching clips of Robin Williams on YouTube, listening to his 2010 interview with Marc Maron, and browsing the various tributes and obituaries. As I wrote in an post last night, his death has been particularly hard as there’s so much I can relate to- the depression, the alcoholism, the way making other people laugh is often a way to mask your own pain. But I’ve noticed a common thread in many of these tributes (and recall seeing them following the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman as well) that describe the struggle with depression and alcoholism as battling demons. And that has to stop.
I’m probably guilty of using the metaphor too, but depression and alcoholism are not demons- they’re diseases. There is no supernatural or malevolent force that caused Robin Williams to feel sad or that drove me to drink. And when we describe depression and anxiety in these terms we, consciously or not, give ourselves permission to throw up our hands and to take no action to understand them as diseases and how we might treat them.
If someone has heart disease and dies after years of struggling with it, we don’t say they had demons. If someone dies after a long battle with cancer, do we attribute it to demons? Of course not, and we’d rightly point out how ridiculous it would be to do so, because heart disease and cancer are widely recognized as medical conditions that can be treated with scientific and medical procedures, medications and therapies.
Why don’t we see depression and alcoholism in the same way? Why do we shake our heads and regretfully mutter something about mysterious and unknowable causes?
We stigmatize the mentally ill- and it’s not necessarily in an overtly negative way like calling people loony or crazy (though that remains an issue)- but when we say someone has demons we are stigmatizing their disease.
Depression and anxiety and alcoholism cannot be wished away (believe me, I tried). They don’t discriminate between good and bad people. They aren’t a punishment for any sin and they aren’t a test of spiritual fortitude.
The sooner we recognize them for what they are and treat them as diseases, the faster we’ll develop treatments and therapies that can help people. When we choose to substitute the supernatural for the scientific we make it harder for people to seek treatment and ask for help and reach out.
Let’s all do a better job.