Kari Stiles

Thinking Back About Robin Williams and Our Regard for Mental Illness

Kari Stiles reflects back on the death of Robin Williams and shows that, with mental illness, it’s not a question of whether it exists, but how we accept it and keep it in check.


I remember waking up after my weekend of work to read all of the heartfelt postings about Robin Williams and his passing. I echoed the sentiments and was lost in thought for a while.

I would like to take a moment, a long moment, to ask you, “What if he’d been bipolar? What if it was bipolar disorder and not ‘just depression’? Does that change anyone’s opinion?” Did you just say, “Oooohhhhh,” as it enlightened your memories of his performances? We say “no” about him, but what about the average person?

As a society, the stigma attached to bipolar and other mental illnesses is palpable. I’ve read postings of folks saying, “I wish he’d reached out for help.” This is a beautiful thought, but how do we know he didn’t? We don’t. At age 63, I suspect he reached out for help much of his life.

I will never forget my inpatient psych rotation during nursing school that fell right on the heels of my rotation on the oncology unit. My impression was, when one is diagnosed with cancer we all come running—we fill your fridge and freezer with casseroles, we walk in your honor, we raise funds for cancer organizations, we put those colored ribbons on our cars, we go get tested ourselves, we help in every way possible—but when one is diagnosed with bipolar this never happens (this also includes schizo affective disorders and other more complex psych diagnoses).

We are afraid, we are nervous, we may have already distanced ourselves from “those people” because of the difficult and complicated process that accompanies these diseases. They often stand alone as they face the life-altering diagnosis of permanent mental illness.

Bipolar can frequently be successfully regulated with meds and therapy along with behavior modification, but it takes a behemoth to fight it because it’s a hell of a disease. But, it can be done. I am learning more and more about this as a dear friend is trying to stand strong while working their way through it. Courage doesn’t even begin to touch the surface of the core of this person.

Meds can work, but bipolar can also take the life of the soul harnessed with the diagnosis because it is a manipulative disease that intoxicates their brains with thoughts and ideas that coax them away from the therapeutic path, that remove their hope, that jeopardize their self-talk into believing something different than what their professionals have told them. Much like that person who encouraged you to try your first drink, your first cigarette, maybe your first joint, or more, but using a stronger, louder, and more convincing voice. As floor nurses, we see bipolar patients frequently, and ER nurses, EMTs, and paramedics see it in its most raw state when those folks stop or misuse their meds or self-medicate to try to numb the extensive symptoms that partner with it.

We live in a society filled with undiagnosed psych issues, but the world self-medicates with alcohol, food, shopping, gambling, hoarding, online games, illicit drug use, sex addiction, and more. Are we doing any better?

Just recently I had a patient who shared with me that they “had no life.” When I asked what having no life meant to them, they expanded by telling me their day consisted of sleeping until they woke up. When awake, they drank until they fell asleep, and the cycle simply repeated itself without end. They told me that this hospitalization was the first they’d seen their family in several years because this time it was unrelated to the alcoholic episodes they’d grown so exhausted with.

Robin Williams self-medicated and volunteered that information. I think it’s fair to say we ALL have hit depression or anxiety at some point in our lives, if it’s not a chronic issue or a generalized yet reasonably functional baseline.

We need to continue to open our minds and hearts to mental illness with each passing day. It’s not easy, especially when the media fills our brains with the sordid details of the latest arrest that often include untreated or undertreated souls. Our society has come a long way from the insane asylums and “crazy houses” of days gone by but I think we continue to struggle with staying consistent.

I am heartbroken that mental illness took the life of Robin Williams, but how many others died in a similar way today? They are nameless and they were also alone. Please keep those amazing folks and especially those desperately fighting the good fight in your thoughts, too. Let’s continue to work together to de-stigmatize mental illness so these moments can be fewer.

Thanks for reading. I will be quiet now.


Kari Stiles

Kari Stiles is a registered nurse with all kinds of fancy letters after her name. She lives outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her cat fulfilling the antiquated vision of “Old Maid”. She lives her life as a pessimistic eternal optimist and volunteerism helps clear her brain. Bacon.

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