On the death of Robin Williams

Published on September 9th, 2014

by Kathleen M. GallagherRobin_Williams

(The following Respect Life column was published in the August 27 edition of North Country Catholic.)

The recent suicide death of actor Robin WIlliams has prompted a renewed national conversation about depression, mental illness and the care and treatment of persons who suffer from these diseases.

I know something about this. My father struggled with severe depression and other anxiety disorders for much of his adult life. At times they were absolutely paralyzing for him, rendering him incapable of performing the simplest of tasks. As a child I did not understand the depth of his suffering; I selfishly focused more on the inconveniences I had to endure rather than the anguish of my father.

My memories are not pleasant: I recall rows and rows of pill bottles up on my father’s dresser and multiple hospitalizations. Following one round of electroshock therapy, the doctors told us that Dad might have some short-term memory loss; the next day, Dad forgot my name.

As a college student, I studied the behavioral sciences, perhaps in attempt to better understand my father and to atone for the way I had treated him.   The knowledge I gained, together with maturity, certainly helped.  We could all use a greater awareness and a better understanding of mental illness.

Because, while treatment modalities have dramatically changed over the past forty years (thank God), some of the stigma surrounding mental illness persists. Persons living with the disease continue to be labeled, feared, and isolated. They are ridiculed, laughed at, discriminated against. The stigma will only be erased with understanding, patience, and love.

Earlier this year the New York State Bishops issued a pastoral statement entitled “For I Am Lonely and Afflicted,” a statement urging compassion for those living with mental illness. In it they ask a series of questions prompting us to examine our attitudes and our response to those who are suffering. They ask us to look to the example of Jesus in the Gospels and to mirror His love and mercy for all.

Persons who suffer from mental illness are – first and foremost – persons. Each one is made in the image and likeness of God and deserves our care, attention and respect.  Each person has inherent dignity and value. As people of faith, we are called to welcome them, embrace them, and include them in our parish, school and community activities. More than anything else, they need our acceptance, love and prayers.

When he was alive, my father always carried a crumpled prayer card in his front pants pocket. It was the prayer to Saint Dymphna, patron saint of those who suffer from mental illness. As we collectively grieve the tragic loss of a multi-talented entertainer, let us offer this prayer for those we may know who seek peace and liberation from their inner demons. 

“Lord God, who has graciously chosen Saint Dymphna to be the patroness of those afflicted with mental and nervous disorders, and has caused her to be an inspiration and a symbol of charity to the thousands who invoke her intercession, grant through the prayers of this pure, youthful martyr, relief and consolation to all who suffer from these disturbances, and especially to those for whom we now pray.”

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