Mental Health/Bipolar Disorder/Suicide
by – Sheri de Grom
Our world shook this past week with collective sadness. We didn’t want to believe what we’d heard. Robin Williams’ suicide should not have happened.
There were brief moments in time when Robin Williams would admit to being bipolar (due to his manic behavior) followed by long stretches of the darkest depression.
Perhaps his publicist or his wife told the media they wanted no mention of bipolar disorder in the remembrances of this gifted star. For me, a mental health advocate for reform, I see Robin Williams’ tragic death a wasted teachable opportunity. One out of five men with bipolar disorder commits suicide. The general public cannot name two accurate symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Mr. Williams spoke at Mental Health Conferences and at large gatherings of individuals with mental illness diagnoses and never once did I hear or learn later of his hiding behind his disease. He spoke openly and with great humility.
Decades of substance abuse, anxiety, rehab stays and relapses caused him endless self-doubt and shame. These feelings are normal for anyone but Robin Williams was a super star living a public life. Like so many with bipolar disorder, his instant witticism in interviews and stand-up routines were beyond the ability of all others.
It’s well know that a patient misdiagnosed as clinically depressed when they are actually bipolar is a time-bomb waiting to explode. The patient without the proper diagnosis doesn’t receive mood stabilizing medications.
Antidepressants, if prescribed alone for the bipolar patient, rather than with mood stabilizers or anticonvulsants are often a deadly mix.
I witnessed this first hand when my husband was admitted to a mental health unit for the first time on December 7, 1987. Tom was diagnosed as single episode, major depression and prescribed so many antidepressants, he was more a zombie than himself. Tom told me the combination of his medications felt as though he were putting his finger in a light socket each time he swallowed yet another one and it activated.
It was impossible for me to know who Tom would be from one hour to the next. He’d think nothing of spending $10,000 for gold and precious gems for a jewelry design he’d sketched without any idea of which market he’d be able to place the piece in and for the highest price.
Tom ordered the $10,000 in materials one day when he was manic and two days later when he’d already moved into a depression so deep he couldn’t get out of bed, the materials arrived and I’d once again lock them in the safe for a day when he might remember the design he ordered them for.
Sixty-five percent of all diagnosed bipolar individuals are also addicts per the Menninger Institute. The individuals will do anything to escape the hell the disease causes.
Tom is not an addict as most people define it with drugs or alcohol. When Tom is manic, he spends money as if however much he spends, it will be instantly replaced by some magical means. Spending money is Tom’s drug of choice.
Robin Williams said in an NPR clip, “Do I perform sometimes in a, in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah. Oh yeah.”
All too often a patient with a set medical regiment will be doing so well, they decide to take a “drug holiday.” They don’t like the side effects of the drugs: weight gain, feeling sluggish, dry mouth, numbed feelings and for the artist, lack of creativity.
Not being creative is enough to make most any artist stop what they perceive to be the problem and relapse into old behavior that’s familiar and they can control.
Early in our marriage, a piece of Tom’s blown glass won first in show at the Monterey, CA Museum of Art. The award was equally prestigious as he was still active duty military and world-renowned glass blowers had entered the competition.
A friend of ours made a comment I didn’t place much meaning on at the time, but I’ve thought about it numerous times since the event. At the reception to honor the artists, our friend approached us and said, “Tom, congratulations. You do your best work when you are depressed.”
Nearly one-third of those who kill themselves visit a physician in the week before they die, and more than a half do so in the month prior to committing suicide.
The media reported that Robin Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This is not an unusual diagnosis when an individual has taken medication for bipolar disorder for many years. The symptoms of the bipolar disordered individual mimic Parkinson’s disease and are misdiagnosed time and time again.
Tom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease for two years and was prescribed medication wherein one of the medications main side-effects is suicidal behavior. Once all of the medications, to include his psych medications were taken away, the symptoms for Parkinson’s disease disappeared.
Parkinson’s disease is the same as bipolar disorder in that there aren’t any blood tests or other definitive tools for diagnosis. Both diseases are diagnosed from a set of symptoms.
It’s critical the mentally ill patient have an advocate who honestly cares about the care they receive. Misdiagnosis causes more harm than the diseases themselves.
The great majority of people who experience a mental illness do not die by suicide. However, of those who die from suicide, more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder.
Thank you for reading with me and being concerned for everyone facing the challenges of mental illness in today’s world.