We see them across the United States. Homeless men and women, filthy, pushing shopping carts, diving in dumpsters, sleeping in tents and suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. Short of becoming a mercenary, they have sunk almost as low as any human being can and still be considered somewhat civilized. Yet, through all the wretchedness of their existence, they remain alive and rarely commit suicide.
Robin Williams not homeless
Contrast this portrait of a homeless human who may, from the perspective of most suburban dwellers, have every reason to commit suicide to that of Robin Williams who successfully attempted suicide in the comfort of his Tiburon bay side home. The image of Robin Williams for most of us was a successful entertainer who was comfortably navigating through his golden years.
Williams shared mental health challenges of homeless
Aside from residing in a nice home and having no apparent lack of food, Williams actually shared mental health challenges that many of the homeless and street people also struggle with. It has also been revealed that Williams was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. As opposed to homeless people who don’t have easy access to medical treatment for various illnesses, Williams certainly could have had access to the best and brightest of the medical profession to treat any health challenge he was enduring.
Do homeless have hope?
If one of the central motivations of suicide is that the person has lost all hope in a meaningful future, it would seem that a man with no home, facing a chronic shortage of food, substance abuse issues and subsisting in a society that has devalued his existence to a mere number on a bureaucratic report on the count of homeless in the community should surely have all the lack of hope, and thus motivation, to commit suicide. From the perspective of many people with a nice home, family, car and job, suicide among homeless should be more common place. Yet we don’t hear of daily suicides committed by homeless people.
We define ourselves with identity
What could possibly account for Robin Williams utter lack of hope beyond that of a similar 63 year old homeless man to commit suicide? Part of the answer may lie in how Williams defined himself as man, husband, father, provider and entertainer. The homeless man has been stripped of any identity. While they may recognize their past roles as a veteran, father, husband or employee, the reality, for better or worse, is that they are broke and homeless. The failure of the homeless man to live up society’s expectations and perceptions does not weigh as heavy on his psyche as it can for others.
I was struck with the Williams’ suicide as being radically out of character until I read that he had been confronting his financial difficulties. In a Parade Magazine feature story on his return to television Williams responded to questions about money issues.
On why this was the right time to return after 31 years:
“The idea of having a steady job is appealing. I have two [other] choices: go on the road doing stand-up, or do small, independent movies working almost for scale [minimum union pay]. The movies are good, but a lot of times they don’t even have distribution. There are bills to pay. My life has downsized, in a good way. I’m selling the ranch up in Napa. I just can’t afford it anymore.”
On whether he lost all his money in his two divorces:
“Well, not all. Lost enough. Divorce is expensive. I used to joke they were going to call it ‘all the money,’ but they changed it to ‘alimony.’ It’s ripping your heart out through your wallet. Are things good with my exes? Yes. But do I need that lifestyle? No.” – Parade Magazine, 2013
The worth of a man
His earning potential had declined with his age making it more difficult to land film roles with a big payday. His TV show was canceled. He had to sell his ranch. All the benchmarks that our society says are the hallmark of a successful individual were evaporating from his life. A recent article in the Washington Post, Why men like Williams are at higher risk of suicide, confirms that older white men with decreasing earning potential are at higher risk for suicide.
Failure to fulfill society’s expectations
Now you may scoff at my unprofessional assessment about Williams’ motivations for suicide, but I speak from experience. When a man has been raised and accepted the role as the financial foundation for his family, the sudden or gradual loss of the ability to fulfill that expectation is devastating. In short, you feel like a failure. If you feel like a failure and there is no hope that your sinking financial fortunes will again float to the surface, suicide becomes a viable option to solve the problem.
From the outside it’s irrational
Is this embrace of suicide as a problem solver irrational? Yes. Does persistent depression elevate the viability of suicide as an option? Yes. As does the realities of aging and additional health challenges. From the perspective of a man who is suicidal, it doesn’t make a difference how often you are told you are love and how much you are needed. You see your life as a burden not only to yourself but to others around you for whom you are supposed to be supporting.
Is there happiness without money?
Money buys happiness. The American consumer culture has told us so. The homeless man knows money buys happiness. But the homeless man is able to adapt and cope with the realities of not having money. There can be joy in poverty. We only need to look at the thousands of men and women who have taken a vow of poverty to see that it is possible to have a fulfilling life without money and material goods. There is no joy when happiness, as defined and measured in one’s mind by the accumulation of wealth and the ability to support your family, slips from our hands like water from a stream.
Better dead, than dead broke
Friends and family of Robin Williams would have still loved him if he was homeless. But for older white men who have defined the “wealth of a nation”, it is preferable to be dead than homeless.