Mental illness: An inconvenient truth

By Muffy Walker

Founder and chairman of the Board of Directors of the international Bipolar Foundation

Recently, the world lost Robin Williams, a great human being and actor. Some of us will remember him as the alien in “Mork and Mindy,” the nanny in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” or Teddy Roosevelt in “A Night at the Museum,” but none of us will forget the sad twinkle in his eye and the joy he brought to audiences everywhere.

Robin Williams took his life after years of fighting the demons of depression, mania, alcoholism and substance abuse. Tragically, the feelings of hopelessness that can accompany depression got the best of him. Williams’ death is yet another wake-up call that has reignited the discussion about mental illness and the need to create a stronger public dialogue about helping those who suffer from mental illness.

What makes his death so difficult to comprehend is not only our love for him as a comedic genius, but that he seemingly had it all — success and the resources to fight back.

The inconvenient truth, though, is that mental illnesses can be fatal. According to Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, “These illnesses are currently just as fatal as the ‘big killers.’ We must continue to invest in research to develop new and more effective treatments for people with depression and other mental illnesses. The goal must be a future in which no lives are lost as a result of suicide.”

Since the announcement of this tragedy, we have received an outpouring of requests for information. “I think I’m depressed, how do I know if I need help?”; “How do I help my son when I’m so afraid to seek treatment for myself?” Unfortunately, stigma and lack of education are some of the barriers to seeking treatment.

Given that one of every four people has a mental illness, with 800,000 people taking their lives (annually), we all know someone who is affected. Start the dialogue, educate yourself, open your mind and reach out.

If you or someone you know is thinking of hurting themselves or taking their life, please call a suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255. If you are having trouble grappling with the sad news about Mr. Williams, please call your psychiatrist or therapist.

To all those who have lost someone to suicide, our hearts and condolences go out to you.

International Bipolar Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in San Diego and helping people in more than 150 countries. All services and programs are free and globally accessible. The mission is to improve understanding and treatment of bipolar disorder through research; to promote care and support resources for individuals and caregivers; and to erase stigma through education. If you or someone you know is in need of our services, please call 858-764-2496 or visit