Friday, August 22, 2014

The Talking Point That Was Missed About Robin Williams' Death

A few days after Robin Williams' suicide, I saw a mention that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. It was in a Facebook comment or tweet or something, so I took it as a possibly important fact and assumed I'd see it confirmed somewhere in my news feed sooner or later. Since I still hadn't seen any stories about the diagnosis, I did a Google search and found a story from CNN confirming it.

The fact that the story didn't show up in my news feed despite the hundreds of posts about Robin Williams I saw last week isn't really surprising. Especially online, our news sources tend to stick to their initial narratives (often along political lines) no matter what new information becomes available. Americans don't do nuance, even when it's potentially important nuance. The narrative is that Robin Williams was depressed, so depression is the topic of the day. Just to be clear, that's not a bad thing. If the number of suicides I've heard about just outside my circle of friends in the last few years is any indication, depression is killing a lot of people. If the flood of depression articles helped anyone, that's a good thing. I even think it would be cool if we could talk about suicide and depression when there's not a celebrity corpse to hang the story on, but there probably aren't any shares, likes, retweets, and (most importantly) links back to monetized pages for that.

Another thing that would be nice is if we could handle the brain overload of having more than one discussion come out of a particular news story. Based on statements from Williams' wife, depression was probably what ultimately caused him to take his own life, but what if the depression only pushed the schedule forward. What if he'd already decided to kill himself, and it was a rational decision? What if instead of Robin Williams, it was a celebrity without a history of depression and substance abuse (or even an abortion for those who think a fetal ghost haunted him to death)--and let's make it a celebrity who's not incredibly talented, just so it'll be a little less depressing. If Daniel Tosh* had killed himself and then we found out he had just been diagnosed with a debilitating disease, would that give us an opening to have a conversation about euthanasia?

Switching back to Williams in the interest of having a sympathetic lead, what if medically assisted suicide were an option that could have been openly discussed when he got the diagnosis? If planning suicide in response to a terminal illness were a valid and legal medical option instead of a crime and a sin that has to remain secret at all costs, maybe he would have discussed the option with his family and somehow that would have changed the outcome. Maybe they would have convinced him to take a Terry Pratchett approach and stick around until the disease became too much to handle. I know this sounds cynical, but with an "I'm dying and this will be my last movie" pitch, Robin Williams could get any movie he wanted to make funded. Maybe he could have made one last great film, or lent his celebrity to a new pair of young unknown filmmakers with a great movie up their sleeve, or put on the biggest Comic Relief ever, or just made us laugh.

Of course, maybe they couldn't have talked him out of it. Remember, he watched two friends--Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor--suffer for years with debilitating medical conditions, so it's certainly conceivable that he wouldn't want to put himself or his family and friends through a similar ordeal. If that were the case, being able to discuss the possibility medically assisted suicide without stigma may have increased the chances of the decision being made by the man and not the disease. If he wanted to die rather than deal with the Parkinson's, euthanasia would have allowed him to say goodbye and to die painlessly surrounded by his loved ones. Instead, he had to die alone and probably in physical pain, hoping that the letter he left behind would be enough to make his family and friends understand his decision.

*I have no idea if Daniel Tosh has a history of depression or substance abuse, but he's definitely not incredibly talented.

That was depressing. Maybe this will help.

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