Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Freeing the genie

THANK you, Robin.

I wish you could have stayed.

I saw “Mork & Mindy” when I was a schoolgirl raised on limited TV. I think that my father allowed this because the comedy was one of a few primetime programs, aside from “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Muppet Show,” that posed no danger to my sister and I.

Robin Williams, as the alien Mork from the planet Ork, lived with earthling Mindy in a state that was both connubial and celibate. This was, of course, TV reality. The success of this top-rating show in suspending the usual sexual tension dictating all TV-mediated gender relations owed much to the genius of Williams.

My classmates and I barked “Nanu Nanu!” and “Shazbot!” as if we were naturalized Orkans. Perhaps there was a writer or a battalion of them writing the show’s gags, but it felt like Mork was the direct conduit of Williams’s gift for making all things mundane and humdrum seem new, bright and wonderful.

His death from suicide this week seemed so out of character until I realized that—Shazbot!—Williams was making us refocus on what lies beneath the surface of another sensationally reported demise of another celebrity.

From local radio commentaries to online news reports, the death of Williams became pegged to a worldwide crisis in mental health, specifically what should be done to detect depression and help the suffering from considering suicide.

Severing the link between depression and suicide is as important as disconnecting the celebrity suicide watch from copycat self-inflicted death. After The Academy, which gives out the Oscars, tweeted “Genie, you’re free,” alongside an image from the movie “Aladdin,” where Williams voiced the Genie, the Washington Post and other media echoed the concern of suicide-prevention advocates that retweeting The Academy’s goodbye to Williams might convince those at risk of opting for suicide as a “way out”.

“Suicide contagion” captures the fact that everyone is vulnerable to suicide. The criticism over insensitive and dangerous reporting of suicide, specially dwelling on the method used and other intrusive details, has been balanced with coverage on what can be done to help people from going over the edge.

Face up to FACTS, advised an assistant professor of psychiatry in an article uploaded on F stands for feelings: is a person uncharacteristically sad or hopeless? A is for actions: check if a person is hoarding drugs or weapons. C alerts one to changes of appearance and behavior. T stands for direct or indirect threats about self-harm. S is for stressors, like broken relationships or lack of money.

The challenge here is to be unusually observant and empathetic. Even with our loved ones, we are not always vigilant. Rarely do we associate depression, a serious medical illness, with being “ma-uy (maudlin)” or “emo (youthspeak for “emotional” or “moody”).

Yet, based on reports of non-celebrities taking their life, depression, called the “black cloud” (Williams) or “black dog” (Winston Churchill), can be triggered by causes that other people might shrug off: sickness, old age, rejection, failing grades, a parent’s refusal, joblessness, pimples.

Depression may not push one to take one’s life but it can be just as devastating when it prevents people from fighting illness, reaching out to others, or just looking forward to each day.

Years ago, a friend and colleague’s suicide pushed me to write about another writer I knew who took her life. Both writers were young, gifted and rising. No one, even the ones closest to them, saw warning signs.

After my article was published, a person who mentored me in my first job got in touch. He lost a child to suicide. He asked if we could meet because he wanted to talk about it.

I don’t know if it was the memory of his kids that used to play in the office while waiting for their dad or the nearness of the deaths of colleagues and friends, but I found an excuse not to meet my mentor. I regret this decision.

Williams may not have freed the genie. But he made us realize how closely we should watch that the black cloud, dog or whatever does not blot out the love of life among us.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 17, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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