On Robin Williams' Suicide

The confusion, sadness, and anger were further exacerbated by the announcement that Williams was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. The news that he had an incurable degenerative neurological disorder, a detail shared by his wife five days after his death, sparked entirely new conversations about living with such a disease, Parkinson's comorbidity with depression, and the hope one should be able to place in medicine's supposedly impending cure. 

While each of these aforementioned shards, created by the mirror Williams so unceremoniously shattered, has been explored in detail by the media, there is one facet of this cultural event that has yet to be inspected: the affect Williams' suicide has had on our faith in modern medicine. 

The history of Western medicine is one of shifting public opinion. In the last half century alone, we have seen both an unabashed period of therapeutic optimism, and the rise of elite pockets of therapeutic nihilists. The first period followed the successes of World War II, when the potential for scientific innovation seemed limitless, and every problem seemed solvable. The second stems from the sense that "traditional" medicine is about money, not patients, and has resulted in the rise of "alternative" therapies like acupuncture and gluten-free diets. 

Though many amongst us harbor nihilistic feelings when it comes to modern biomedicine, the vast majority of us turn to the medical establishment when we are in need and, furthermore, expect it to heal us. Though we repeat the refrain that "the system is broken," when we encounter mental illness -- our own or others -- we believe that some semblance of normalcy can be restored in a therapist's office, or in a shiny, new pharmaceutical concoction. And when we are faced with a treatable, but incurable, disease like Parkinson's, we believe, almost as a reflex, that a cure is on its way. This optimism is not unfounded; it is indeed bolstered almost every day, with reports of new light being shined on our darkest fears, like the new preventative HIV drug and the apparent success of the ebola vaccine.

But the excitement of a press release on the latest breakthrough in pharmacology is tempered by a loss like Williams'. A suicide like his makes us question our hope. Maybe we don't understand the brain as well as we thought we did. Even more frightening, perhaps people really do feel a hopelessness that cannot be medicated, or loved, away.  And maybe a cure for Parkinson's is farther away than it seems, the line of thought continues. Or even more upsetting, perhaps the realities of Parkinson's, the loss of motor function and, eventually, your cognition and your personality, is more terrible than we care to admit.

An absolute therapeutic nihilism, a nihilism that stopped the processes of science and ended the search of the innumerable needed cures, would be of benefit to no one. But an irrational therapeutic optimism, one without caveats or concessions, is not much help either. Before we can engage in the conversation of mental illness that our society needs and our sick deserve, we must first address the presumptions about treatment and the potential for healing that we clutch so tight.  

Subscribe to my mailing list

* indicates required