Since you’re on the internet, you’ve already heard the latest news — Robin Williams’ wife announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He hadn’t wanted to announce it publically yet. He had not returned to drug or alcohol use. He was deeply depressed because of the Parkinson’s diagnosis.
The responses I saw, just in the first hour after learning this new information, revealed to me that there is a deeper level of stigma than mental illness. When all we knew was that Robin Williams had succeeded at suicide and that he had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and that he had spoken openly about depression and mania, there was an outpouring of compassion about the pain of depression. A few people aside, people were talking with compassion about depression. People were sharing phone numbers of hotlines. People were telling one another to be there for their friends, to listen, to care. People with mental illnesses wrote messages of solidarity and I even saw many folks seeing this climate of compassion and taking the strength and courage from it to come out of the closet about their own mental illness.
But now that we know that Robin Williams had Parkinson’s, what is the first thing I see? “It’s still tragic, but it’s more like a rational choice now.” and, “I feel as if, now came out he had Parkinson’s disease, we can agree he had a reason to choose to die.” and “If laws for euthanasia where better he could have chosen to die among his loved ones, family and friends and not alone and cruel.”
I’m happy to say that others joined the conversation and spoke about why those kinds of attitudes are so chilling to disabled people. But still, the immediate reactions of able-bodied people shocked me. And it showed me that we still have so much stigma to dig ourselves out from under.
Earlier this week, we were having conversations about the very real and very harmful stigma of mental illness. And we were seeing many strong and heartening responses about depression and suicide and reaching out to one another. Even Matt Walsh, who had been skewered for a blog post titled “Robin Williams Didn’t Die From a Disease, He Died From His Choice”, was trying to say that depression-fueled suicide shouldn’t happen because we should be reaching out to one another, loving one another, helping one another through our pain. He clarified his position in a follow-up post titled “Depression Isn’t a Choice But Suicide Is“. Although he still referred to depression as a “demon,” a position that Maia Szalavitz points out is stigmatizing in itself: “When even today’s headlines about addiction and mental illness refer to struggles with “demons,” you know that stigma remains strong.” (from How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?)
Going forward, we need to duplicate the sensitive conversations we were having about the stigma of mental illness, but this time, we need to talk about the stigma of disability. The instinctual responses I saw from people when they learned that Robin Williams had been depressed about being diagnosed with Parkinson’s are part of a “better off dead” stigma that disabled people encounter from others every day. In the Autistic community, we see it played out graphically, month after month, as parents and other caregivers kill Autistic children and adults and onlookers talk about the great difficulty of taking care of Autistic people, the cost, the suffering, the quality of life. So much sympathy goes to the parents who had been “saddled with such a burden” and so little sympathy, outside of the community of Autistics and our allies, goes to the disabled victim.
When the first response to learning that Robin Williams had Parkinson’s is that his suicide makes sense now, there is something very wrong. One person said, “Couldn’t he have called Michael J. Fox?? He died from fear of disability.” And I wonder if Fox will tell us that he did speak with Williams. Or if he will reveal that he had no idea about Williams’ diagnosis. I don’t know if Fox could have helped Williams come to terms with the diagnosis or not, but Fox has been pretty open about his own life and he’s surely someone I would want to have in my corner while I grappled with my life choices in the face of a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Parkinson’s is a difficult disease to live with. Then again, so is depression, but our culture’s instinctual response to depression was to remind people that we should fight against it, not to say that it makes sense to commit suicide because who would want to live with the pain of depression? We must overcome our cultural attitude that a disabled life is a life not worth living. We must learn enough about the lives and thoughts of disabled people that we no longer have a knee jerk reaction of approval to suicide committed to avoid a disabling disease. And we must work to build a society that accommodates and includes disabled people, welcoming disabled people into the community of “us” rather than relegating disabled people to a pitied and feared “them” that “we can all agree” would have a perfectly valid reason to kill themselves.
Not only does this attitude devalue the lives of disabled people, judge their worthiness, “other” them, but it is dangerous. It is the beginning of a slippery slope. If we say that Robin Williams’ suicide is now understandable, acceptable, rational, reasonable, supportable . . . we begin to erode the right of disabled people to live our lives. If we are too much trouble, If we cost too much, if we demand too many accommodations, are we forfeiting our right to exist? If the world thinks that we would be better off dead, how willing will people be to help us live a good, satisfying, fulfilling life? Who wants to spend resources on people who “shouldn’t be here”?
So if you hear about Robin Williams’ Parkinson’s diagnosis and you are tempted to think it makes his suicide better, more rational, or even okay, stop to think about what attitude you are carrying toward disability and why you are shocked at a suicide due to depression but only sad about a suicide due to disability.