Along with countless others, I was saddened to hear of the suicide of Robin Williams. It was such a loss of a talented, kind and unique person. We all rush to try to make sense of it or to have some good come from so much sadness.
Just as with every event of this nature, the media tells us how we must raise awareness of mental illness. I don’t see it that way. I think we are very aware of mental illness. Celebrities have no problem talking about their emotional challenges or addiction battles any longer. In theU.S., unlike any other country, we hear about depression and other mental disorders from the pharmaceutical companies pushing drugs during countless TV commercials. More than 10% of theUSpopulation is currently taking antidepressant medications. I think there is sufficient awareness of the problem. What we need is better awareness of solutions.
Working with people as a therapist for the last 20-some years, I have had no need for the term “mental illness”. I don’t subscribe to the paradigm that finds the term “mental illness” useful. That paradigm uses a lens called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I prefer to see people as hurting, with over-active defense systems. My paradigm uses the MBTI to profile the True Self and the Enneagram to profile the defense system. The very same behaviors that a person with emotional pain displays can either be attributed to an Enneagram type, if that person comes to a therapist using this lens, or they can be classified as a mental illness using the DSM lens. The late Don Riso described how the various Enneagram types, when taken to an extreme, become pathological and that is when they come to have various mental disorder terminology attached to them (bi-polar, OCD, sociopath, dissociative, paranoid, etc.). The name is not important; but the name determines the treatment. Someone with a mental illness is seen and treated differently than someone with an over-active defense system.
Often, what causes a set of defense behaviors to be classified as mental illness is cultural bias. Richard Rohr has arbitrarily ascribed Enneagram types to various countries as a way to profile their cultures. In some ways, it is an amusing concept but it has more than a kernel of truth in it. TheU.S.culture is a mixture of Enneagram Three (success is worshiped) and Enneagram Six (fear driven). Our last four presidents, over 22 years, have been either Threes or Sixes. TheU.S.culture sees Three and Six defense behaviors as “normal”, and not through the lens of the DSM. In theU.S.culture, there is nothing wrong with someone who claws his way to the top. It’s the American way! There is nothing wrong with extreme patriotism. Circle our wagons and don’t let any of “those people” in. However, if someone displays wide mood swings with suicidal ideation, that person is mentally ill. TheU.S.culture prefers two sets of defense tactics and pathologizes the other seven.
Because theU.S.culture is success and fear driven, it is not so much interested in helping people as it is susceptible to the influence of the lucrative pharmaceutical industry. For things to change markedly so that people like Robin Williams can be helped with more than a bottle of pills, there would have to be a major cultural change. Paradigms don’t shift easily, especially those that are well-funded.
What I feel is the saddest part of the loss of Robin Williams is that he sought help and it was inadequate to prevent his suicide. For society in general and the mental health profession in particular, change comes slowly. Treatment of mental health issues has not changed significantly in 50 years. Treatment approaches are physiological (a brain chemistry disorder) or appeal cognitively to the rational thinking of the individual. Early in the last century, both Freud and Jung pointed us in the direction of the subconscious but “rational thinkers” took over sending psychotherapy into another direction. It is now referred to as “analysis”.
Analysis takes place in the left hemisphere of the brain where rational thinking lies. Unfortunately, the parts that drive us to do irrational things such as suicide are located in the irrational subconscious which can only be reached via the right hemisphere. Anyone who has ever tried to talk another person out of a poor and irrational decision knows that it can rarely be done. I am not the only one who says that if there is a conflict between reason and irrational subconscious drives, the subconscious part wins 100% of the time. Nonetheless, mental health professionals are still trained in universities to talk people out of their irrational coping skills and defense mechanisms. Unfortunately, I think it will take more than Robin Williams if a score of disturbed young men killing innocent children hasn’t accomplished a change. First, there has to be some discontent with the status quo and I haven’t seen any. Think about how long it took to change the culture and the medical community’s position on smoking when there was a ground swell of opposition to the practice and a wealth of evidence against it.
As long as everyone accepts the statement that Robin Williams killed himself, we cannot move forward. That statement indicates that he had choice and that he chose to end his life. That implies rational thinking and a rational decision made by his rational mind. Instead, that decision was made by a non-rational, subconscious defense system that has eradicating emotional pain as its singular focus. To that part of the psyche, suicide is a viable option because it accomplishes the primary task of stopping the pain. Accepting this position means accepting that humans are not indivisible individuals but composed of parts, some conscious and some not; some rational and some not. There is no indication we are moving in that direction.
Thinking of ourselves as parts isn’t as mystifying and obscure as it may sound. Just as we can get a profile of a person’s True Self using the MBTI, we can get a profile of the subconscious defense system using the Enneagram. There is every indication that Robin Williams’s Enneagram was type Four which is generally labeled “bi-polar” by the mental health community. Everyone saw the manic side of that part of him in his comedy but he openly acknowledged the darker side as well. The Four defense sees suicide as a very viable option to remove emotional pain. I feel as long as our culture insists on seeing a Four defense as a mental disease to be medicated, we will continue to lose people like Williams and countless others, both celebrities and those less well known.
An out-of-control defense system cannot be controlled by rational talk. The right brain and the subconscious cannot comprehend language and cannot understand logic. In order to have control of the subconscious defense system, the reasons for its existence have to be alleviated and that information has to be conveyed to the subconscious. Talk cannot reach the subconscious; right brain techniques must be employed. There is no indication that the mental health profession is as interested in reaching the subconscious as it is in suggesting better coping skills, discussing causation and medicating.
Throwing pills at the problem doesn’t seem to help either. Sometimes the pills are used to accomplish the suicide. However, with the amount of money the pharmaceutical industry has to control the legislature, the media and the culture, that isn’t about to change soon either. There has been a 400% increase in antidepressant use since 1988 and there is no indication that we are a happy, healthier society.
So for tragedies like Robin Williams untimely loss to diminish in frequency, there has to be an awareness that there are more effective methods of treatment, there has to be an acceptance of the power of the subconscious which controls 90% of our lives and there has to be a shift away from seeing irrational defense behaviors as mental illness in need of medication. The sadness around the loss of Robin Williams is compounded for me because I do not see any of these changes happening in my lifetime. I don’t know how this powerful train can be turned around so others in his position can be reached more effectively.