Trigger warning for suicide
For those of you that have seen the film Good Will Hunting, you may remember the scene where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon over and over, “it’s not your fault.” The scene culminates in a meaningful embrace and what can only be considered as a therapeutic breakthrough. In graduate school, my professor showed us this scene to demonstrate a point about empathy and understanding in the therapeutic relationship. And while most therapy doesn’t really work like that, this scene remains one of the most poignant scenes that I have seen in regards to the portrayal of therapy.
I’ve watched this scene several times since the tragic suicide of Robin Williams. And it sums up everything I want to say and get through to not only my clients, but everyone suffering from suicidal ideation, depressive symptoms, mental illness, and those who have ever felt a sense of hopelessness and despair.
It’s not your fault.
In working as a therapist, I’m no stranger to suicide. I’ve encountered a multitude of clients who have expressed suicidal ideation and have attempted to take their own life. I’ve stayed with clients until a loved one has come to pick them up and take them to the hospital because they expressed an active plan to harm themselves. It’s something that becomes continually monitored in this line of work, as keeping a person alive and encouraging their well-being becomes the top priority. Many individuals suffering from suicidal thoughts do not understand why they are going through it and what brings things on for them.
Many have said the same thing that I am about to say, whether it’s been a research-based article or an opinion-based Facebook post, but it’s worth reiterating.
Mental illness is not your fault. Mental illness, whether it be a single major depressive episode, severe Bipolar Disorder and every other mental health condition is real and can often be debilitating. Mental illness does not discriminate against sex, race, religion, social class, or sexuality (though certain factors, life circumstances and discrimination experienced can make one more susceptible), and it affects millions and millions of people. It’s not something that you can “snap out” of, and, depending on severity, is something that takes a long time to learn how to manage.
Robin Williams was said to suffer from Bipolar Disorder. While Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and other disorders that may contribute to suicidal thoughts can be treated, there is no miracle cure. Learning how to manage symptoms and live a meaningful, satisfying life with relative stability can take a lot of work, and there’s no one “right” way to do it. Psycho-pharmaceuticals can provide relief and fix chemical imbalances that may contribute to mental illness, but there’s no miracle pill. CBT can help one learn to manage symptoms and target irrational thoughts, and psychodynamic therapy can help one understand how past events led to the development of current symptoms, but no one specific type of therapy can miraculously cure mental health issues.
I’ve seen countless facebook posts that post accurate information regarding mental health as well as suicide hotline numbers. I’ve heard stories of people who have benefited from treatment. These anecdotes are great and serve to end the stigma and encourage others to seek the help that they need. But I’ve also heard horror stories about unhelpful therapists and psychiatrists who only made someone feel worse and more stigmatized. Yes, there needs to be more access to mental health care and less stigma surrounding mental health, but there also needs to be more access to high quality mental health care and therapists with specific, extensive training in suicidality. A good therapist, above all, is caring and knows that it’s not your fault. Effective mental health professionals will have not only the clinical skills to recognize signs of suicidality and implement prevention strategies, but also the compassion that will show people that their lives are valuable. There needs to be more education about mental health issues, and it can’t be something that is swept under the rug anymore.
As a therapist, I have realized that I cannot save anybody, and that while I can work tirelessly to help people, I cannot eliminate suicide. But as a mental health professional, I can show empathy, build a good therapeutic relationship, and help someone learn that it’s not their fault. As humans, I can only hope that we all do the same and continue to work on reducing stigma surrounding mental illness and providing support to others moving forward.