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08/12/2014 02:49 EDT | Updated 10/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Is Mental Illness Such A Stigmatized Condition?

Why is mental illness such a stigmatized condition? As an addictions therapist, I have never understood that. The way I see it, mental illness is exactly the same as physical illness -- it is, in fact, physical illness just like any affliction having to do with the body.

Kevin Winter via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Actor Robin Williams speaks onstage during the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

"Robin Williams: Dead, Apparent Suicide"

How could this happen? We are asking ourselves this question today as we shake our heads in disbelief. Robin Williams, the uproariously funny comedian, dead? Apparent suicide?

How can this be?

Yes, we all knew he had problems with addiction -- he'd bravely allowed that to be common knowledge, probably in the hope that his struggle could also help others. He carried the message in the true spirit of one who was walking the walk of addiction recovery, and I greatly respect him for that.

Some of us knew that he also struggled with a chemical imbalance in his brain and with the often severe depression resulting from that. When addiction and depression go hand in hand, as it unfortunately did for him, it can take a tremendous amount of courage just to put one foot in front of the other on a daily basis.

I do think Robin was a tremendously courageous man, for as long as he could be.

The stigma of mental illness

Why is mental illness such a stigmatized condition? As an addictions therapist, I have never understood that. The way I see it, mental illness is exactly the same as physical illness -- it is, in fact, physical illness just like any affliction having to do with the body.

My Crohn's disease is the same as chemical depression -- it's just in a different part of the body. But the shame that continues to accompany illnesses of the brain is, in my opinion, both preposterous and unnecessary -- and it often prevents those afflicted with it from seeking and receiving the help they so desperately need.

That shame may have been, in large part, what ultimately killed Robin Williams.

Dual diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, co-morbidity -- these are but a few of the various names given to the condition where substance addiction and mental health intersect. Perhaps this dreaded stigma exists because many, if not most, of the people who are homeless and on our streets are dealing with that intersection of conditions.

Robin understood this, as is shown by his tireless work for Comic Relief, along with his terrifically funny cohorts Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. In my opinion, we should be ashamed of ourselves as a society to not be offering more help to those who are downtrodden because of this situation.

And at the same time, many of our funniest and most talented entertainers are also afflicted by this same disorder. Most of us understand that the best comedy comes from pain -- and unfortunately, Williams personified this to the hilt.

Aside from being an amazingly compassionate human being, he was also hilarious, wacky, and cutting-edge. At times he teased us by perhaps intentionally making us uncomfortable with his non-stop antics and with his raw, raving political commentary. There was never any doubt that he was a genius when it came to transforming his emotional pain into both brilliant comedy and deeply compelling dramatic performances. He was at his best when he made us laugh -- and when he made us cry.

What we know now is that he himself was laughing and also crying--and I'm so very sad to know he's gone.

Remembering Robin

My profound hope is that Robin's death will not be in vain. I deeply hope that what happened to him will shine an enormous spotlight on the ridiculous stigmas of both addiction and mental health -- especially when combined -- as well as the lack of services we have to combat and treat these issues.

I believe that Robin's death could have been prevented. Hopefully many other deaths can now be prevented as well, if we'll just collectively get our heads out of the sand and accept that mental illness is not the appalling, terrifying issue that we, as a society, so treacherously scorn and fear.

Let's honor Robin Williams' life -- both his deep struggles and his amazing triumphs. He was a courageous man, and he will surely be missed.

Rest in peace, dearest Mork.

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