Tuesday, August 12, 2014
News of Robin Williams' death has been a sucker-punch to the gut of a nation. At the same time, the reality that this genius is no longer of the earth is a concept that still hasn't quite sunk in.
I always liked his improvisational stand-up better than his TV sitcom or his later commercial blockbuster movies. (Exception: Awakenings.) When I first saw this anarchist in action, hyped up on his own natural amphetamines, I remember wondering how he ever managed to wind down enough to fall asleep at night. Later, when he revealed his substance abuse issues, I was not surprised that he'd taken the self-medication route, both to calm down and to ease some enormous hidden emotional pain. It's a testament to his own fortitude that he lasted as long as he did, into his seventh decade. Geniuses of his caliber who battle mental illness and addiction usually don't survive middle age.
His death is also a reminder that, as in so many of its other assbackwardnesses, America the Exceptional is still in the Dark Ages regarding mental illness. How many times in the past day have we heard media personalities pontificate about Williams "battling his demons?" Because, despite the advances in knowledge that depression is an organic disease, it's still equated with being possessed by the devil, or regarded as a moral or even criminal failing.
In fact, there are ten times more mentally ill people incarcerated in American jails than are being treated in psychiatric settings. These prisons are 21st Century Bedlams, in which sick people are so neglected and abused that by the time they are released, their illnesses have only gotten worse.
According to a study released in April by the Treatment Advocacy Center, in 2012, there were an estimated 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses in U.S. prisons and jails. There were only 35,000 mentally ill individuals in state psychiatric hospitals. Its findings show that the deliberate "transinstitutionalization" of mentally ill patients from hospitals to prisons is well nigh complete.
"We characterize seriously mentally ill individuals as having a thinking disorder," the report trenchantly concludes. "But surely it's no worse than our own."
On that note, let us remember the refreshing and hilarious sanity of the truly great Robin Williams. Let the current epidemic of barbarism take a back seat to the humanity of one brilliant soul for at least one more day.