I was shocked like the rest of you when I learned about Robin Williams' death earlier this week.
But news of his apparent suicide hit me extra hard because Bipolar disorder, which the comedian struggled with throughout his life, has impacted my family and me firsthand.
When I was a little girl, my mom was diagnosed with the illness. Thank God, my mother--the best mom in the world in my book--has been healthy, happy, and thriving for many years.
For a long time, though, my mom's illness was devastating for her--and for the people who love her, especially my older sister and me, and my superhero of a dad, who cared for his sick wife and two young daughters, and still somehow managed to put a roof over our heads.
Back then, my mom's illness was barely talked about outside our home. We kept it on the down low, unlike the girl in my class whose mom had cancer and everyone knew it.
Words like "depression," "Bipolar," and "Lithium" have been a part of my vocabulary since I was a little kid, practically before most children learn to read, so the illness isn't new to me.
What is new is what I've witnessed this week, something beautiful in the wake of Williams' death.
Through social media, in addition to our collective grieving of a comic genius and mensch, we've seen an outpouring of people sharing their stories--post after post of people coming out of the closet with their own struggles with depression. Thirty years ago, when my mom was diagnosed, these types of public platforms didn't exist.
More than that, mental illness used to be shrouded in darkness. Today, that stigma is fading and--with a little help from this era of sharing (and sometimes over-sharing)--we're evolving. We're learning that people with mental illness, just like people with cancer, shouldn't be shamed, but should be listened to, treated, cared for, and loved.
And in the case of Williams, there is another layer. He was larger than life, so funny, so brilliant, and so famous, that his death is capturing our attention in a way we've rarely seen before. If mental illness could claim him--this beloved genie who brought us so much joy and laughter--then none of us are immune.
So, besides introducing us to lovable characters like Mork, John Keating, and Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams has left an even more important legacy, helping us--the living--shed light and awareness where once there was secrecy.
Williams' death draws attention to mental illness in the larger society, and in our own community too. One of the many reasons I love my work at the Jewish Federation is because of our resources in the area of mental health care. Last year, 2,525 community members received free or subsidized mental health care through the Federation agencies--CJE SeniorLife, Jewish Child & Family Services, Response, The ARK, and SHALVA.
All these resources and this awareness mean that maybe the next little girl whose mom is sick won't feel alone.
If you or someone you know is depressed, call Jewish Child & Family Services at 855-ASK-JCFS (855-275-5237).
To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1 (800) 273-8255.