Jayne: Mental illness knows no social, economic boundaries

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

What about Jennifer Huston?

When Robin Williams committed suicide last week, there was a vast outpouring of grief and sympathy. This is understandable; he was a brilliant and beloved performer, and the ability to make others laugh is one of humanity's greatest gifts.

But what about Jennifer Huston?

You remember, don't you? She was the 38-year-old wife and mother whose body was found in rural Oregon, after a search that dominated Portland news for about a week. I don't know whether Huston had any documented mental illness. But she, like Williams, apparently suffered from demons unknown to those around her and incomprehensible to those who didn't know her. So, what about her?

Oh, this isn't to suggest that Huston's death should get headlines on CNN. It isn't to blame the media for extensive coverage of Williams' death. News is news because people care about it, and millions upon millions of people cared about Williams because he worked in a business that relies upon making strangers feel as though they know you.

But Williams' death likely is far less significant than Huston's to her friends and family. And, in many ways, hers is more significant to the discussion we should be having.

You see, depression and bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses can strike the famous and the not-so-famous. The rich and the poor. The beloved and the lonely. They can strike a world-famous comedian and movie star as readily as a mother from Dundee, Ore., displaying no discretion in their power to shatter families.

And still, there is a stigma attached. There is an ethos in our society that views mental afflictions differently from other illnesses, that tends to assign mental illness to some sort of failing on the part of the sufferer. Look at it this way: If somebody has cancer, they are likely to share their struggle with friends, family, and strangers, understanding that empathy and support will be the result. But somebody who suffers from mental illness is likely to keep it to themselves, knowing that shunning rather than support would be the likely reaction.

Many of you will recognize that I have written about this in the past. I have seen mental illness first-hand through a family member, and I know that in many cases the disease is a chemical imbalance that can be treated. Not cured, but treated. Often, a mentally ill person can deal with their affliction and be a productive member of society, and in that regard it's not unlike heart disease or cancer or diabetes.

Yet, as Molly Pohlig wrote for Slate.com: "Mental illness isn't a marketable disease. I'm sure there are many celebrities who suffer from it, but we don't have a celebrity spokesperson. There are no ice-bucket challenges for depression. Cancer survivors can proudly show off their scars, but no one wants to see ours."

No logic to the disease

The most callous among us have used those scars to push a political agenda in the past week, saying that Williams' act was selfish, or that it was cowardly, or that his left-leaning politics led him to kill himself. Such shameful declarations merely reflect the speaker's ignorance and diminish all of us.

Others have, understandably, questioned how Williams could have fame and adulation and still think that suicide was a viable option. That is a reasonable question, yet it points out the insidiousness of mental illness — there is no logic to it. You can't reason with somebody in the throes of depression; you can't debate with somebody suffering from bipolar disorder. Robin Williams and Jennifer Huston likely knew they were loved, yet something inside led them to believe others would be better off if they were dead. It's wrong and it's painful, but it's far from selfish or cowardly.

And so Williams' death has led to an outpouring of affection and a rekindling of discussions about mental illness. Those, I suppose, are beneficial to society, yet it shouldn't take the death of a celebrity to spark such outcomes.

What about Jennifer Huston?