Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Of Drugs, Depression, and "Demons"

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Robin Williams. A brilliant comedian and actor, his struggles with drugs and depression had been well-documented. But during the coverage I heard something that stopped me in my tracks.

A correspondent on CNN admitted that earlier in their coverage, she had said that Williams "battled demons." She was cautioned by someone in the treatment community against using such a pejorative description. She apologized and said she should call it what it is - a disease.

It was certainly not the first time such a phrase has been used. It evokes colorful and dramatic imagery. It is also medieval-sounding and dark. It is imprecise, inaccurate, and has no place in a discussion about 21st Century health care.

 It got me wondering why we still draw a distinction between mental health care and health care. Why is brain disease looked at in a different way from heart disease? Mental health providers must work to identify and successfully treat disease, but they also must battle stigma. There are still people who don't get the health care they need because of the shame associated with mental disorders and addiction. We still live in a culture that tells people with depression to "cheer up" and kids with ADHD to "just sit still."

In a 2001 essay found online at the Partnership for Drug-free Kids website (www.drugfree.org),  journalist Bob Curley writes that there are "wrong" ways to describe addiction and recovery. Such misnomers hamper the goal of providing better health care for all. For example, he wrote, describing someone as a "substance abuser" places the responsibility solely on the individual, ignoring other factors such as genetics, environment, and economics. It's also easy to "abuse the abuser," he wrote.

I grew up in an era when smoking cigarettes was referred to as a bad habit. "Kick the Habit!" the slogan said. Those words must be cold and cruel to someone trying to quit a drug that is as powerful as heroin.

In Connecticut, we are are still struggling with policy changes in the aftermath of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said the solutions to the problem of gun violence require a multifaceted and multidisciplinary approach, including better access to mental health care. Portraying the shooter as struggling with demons does nothing to promote that cause.

We must start by aligning our language with our goals. Yes, they are just words, but I am a writer. I know that words have power. As John Keating, Williams' character in Dead Poets Society, tells us, "No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world." One of the gifts Williams leaves us was his candor about his disease and the matter-of-fact way he discussed his treatment.

Let's not let Robin Williams become another brilliant flame-out, taken from us too soon - and forgotten.

May your soul find the peace that eluded you here on earth, dear Robin. May your shining example inspire us all to do better.