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posted: 8/14/2014 1:01 AM

The secret story we can't stop talking about

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My original theme for this column was going to be "The story we won't tell about Robin Williams' death." But as I reflect, I realize the more accurate theme may be, "The story people won't talk about despite Robin Williams' death."

In the small-town, obituary-writing period of my reporting career in the 1970s, I used to marvel at the many ways funeral homes and family members strove to keep the C-word away from reports of a person's death. Actually, no one would even dare say, "C-word." People in their forties died "after a brief illness" or "an extended illness." Men and women who were older but still not so old as to presume the constant imminence of death "passed away peacefully" or "expired" in their sleep. In cases of rare courage, the family would leave a hint by welcoming memorials to the American Cancer Society or some similar support group. One simply did not talk publicly about cancer, though famous victims like Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman and others had certainly given it public attention.

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Times have changed. Anxiety and superstition about the disease have diminished. Today such qualms seem for most people insecure and even disingenuous. And perhaps that adjustment has transferred to other once-taboo topics, notably mental illness. There has been no shortage of stories in the wake of Williams' death about his battles with depression and substance abuse. The book "Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness," is just one of many titles in a whole genre of contemporary and historical popular literature examining the role of mental illness in the lives and careers of successful people.

But consider this statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health for a moment: Among the estimated 4.5 million Americans who suffer from the severest forms of mental illness, 40 percent are not getting treatment.

Or reflect on these statements by the National Alliance on Mental Illness: One in four American adults experiences mental illness in a given year and about 60 percent did not get treatment in the previous year.

In some ways, Williams' story belies these numbers. His struggles with depression and substance abuse were no secret. The actor and comedian talked about them openly numerous times over the years. Nor did they go untreated. As recently as last month, national news outlets were reporting that he was "fine tuning" his 20 years of sobriety.

Yet, in spite of all this, we still struggle to understand, perhaps even to accept, how a person with so much of what most people dream of -- success, money, fame, family, friendships, worldwide accolades -- could be drawn to take his own life. We can't accept that he had an illness. It wasn't the C-word. It wasn't diabetes or multiple sclerosis or AIDS or Parkinson's or malaria or tuberculosis or even Alzheimer's or any other illness whose symptoms we can readily recognize and sympathize with. It was a disease -- perhaps the one disease -- we can talk about openly in the abstract but cloak in whispers and veiled glances when referring to the one in four around us who is suffering.

I think about this almost every time we cover a horrendous, unimaginable crime and certainly every time shocked neighbors describe their surprise about the uncharacteristic tragedy involving the nice family down the street.

I wonder in these cases what role embarrassment played in keeping a looming disaster hidden and what role ignorance -- or even polite disregard. Robin Williams' death certainly has given us much to report and read. Perhaps as much as any story we cover, I hope it also gives us something to discuss.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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