Editorial: Robin Williams' death a tragedy, but mental illness is fought everyday

I am a person who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder who cannot remember a time in my life where I did not want to die. (istockphoto.com)

I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or any type of doctor.

I am a person who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder who cannot remember a time in my life when I did not want to die.

As this person, I am irritated that it took Robin Williams’ suicide to reignite people’s support of mental health awareness. News stations broadcasting suicide prevention hotline numbers; individuals on social media sharing those “if you or someone you know” messages. And we know the public service announcements are just around the corner.

The reality is that a staggering 35-50% of adults in the U.S. who have mental health concerns go undiagnosed and untreated for a multitude of reasons: they can’t recognize the symptoms, can’t afford to see a doctor or the cost of the medications. As if that’s not bad enough, many people suffer from more than one; I have bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety; Williams battled drug addiction and depression.

Mental illness does not discriminate by age, gender, or race and is fought every day - not just yesterday, today or tomorrow because celebrity deaths make it a “trendy” cause again and again. If it’s not a famous face bringing mental health to the forefront, it’s a 20-year-old man who shot and killed school children, or a pregnant woman who drove her car full of kids into the ocean. What about the college student who was struggling to keep up, the soldier who had a difficult re-entry, the single parent who doesn’t know how they’ll pay the bills, and the countless others who are our family, friends and neighbors?

As far back as middle school, I felt there was always a darkness and a sadness present in my life - even when things were “good.” After being diagnosed with depression, I struggled (like many do) for years to find the right drug or mix of drugs that would help me make it through high school, college, and my mid-twenties. But the sadness stuck around.

Then one day, I opened up to a friend, telling him that I had set an expiration date. If things did not get better by that time, I would end my life. When he heard that, he threatened to call 9-1-1 if I did not get help immediately. The thought of losing my job and people finding out about my darkness prompted me to go see my doctor and psychiatrist. At 27, nearly 15 years after my depression diagnosis, I was told I also had bipolar disorder.

Things started to make sense. The excessive shopping habit that put me in a load of debt, an abnormally high sex drive, the emotional highs - all the while having plans to end my life - were symptoms that I didn’t recognize as part of a mental illness.

My friend, in a simple moment of concern, saved my life. That’s not to say I still don’t have negative thoughts or feelings, as those who fight mental illness are never “cured.” My symptoms are treated with medication and sometimes counseling, but the thing that keeps me going is the unconditional love of my family and friends. Thinking about the effect my death would have on them makes me confront my demons head on and continue living.

I can’t speak for him, but I’d imagine Robin Williams fought for as long as he could and just couldn’t see any other way out. Millions in the U.S. suffer with depression, but choose to live day after day.

Williams’ death is a tragic ending to a lifelong battle, but my hope is that everyone continues to advocate for mental health awareness long after his death falls from the front pages and long before it happens to someone you love.