Mike Isaacs/Sun-Times Media
SKOKIE — When local businessman Steve Colton was invited to share his story about his struggles with mental health, he had little idea many in the world would be focused on the same subject.
The day before Colton spoke Aug. 12 at the Skokie Public Library, people everywhere were still in shock upon learning that iconic comedian and actor Robin Williams had taken his own life.
“I kept thinking about the phrase, ‘nanoo, nanoo’ all night,” said an emotional Colton, referring to Williams’ signature catch phrase on the show, “Mork and Mindy,” which launched his career. “At 9:30 last night, I found out the world lost another comedic genius…He fought his demons through alcohol and drugs throughout his life, and because of his deepest depression, decided to end his life.”
Most of the Internet reaction to Williams’ suicide was what you would expect — sadness, disbelief, empathy, expressions of gratitude for the immeasurable entertainment that he shared with the world.
But not all of it.
A noticeable thread among all that cyber conversation went something like this: In taking his own life, the beloved Williams was cowardly, selfish, weak. He should have used his wealth to get more help or willed himself to get better. He should have thought less about himself and more about others; he should have traveled outside his own head and moved on with his life.
This fundamentally misinformed and stigmatized view of mental illness is just why President Obama much earlier called on health agencies and others to talk publicly about mental health.
At the time, the president’s directive was in response to mass shootings that rocked communities and the country, tragedies perpetrated by people with mental illness.
Since then, Creating Community Solutions has been sponsoring dialogs on mental health topics, and Turning Point Behavioral Health Care Center, locally, has followed through with the initiative as well.
“A Dialogue on Mental Health in the Business Community” was the topic of the night, and the death of Williams became another sad reminder that serious mental health issues do not distinguish between rich or poor, famous or not famous.
“President Obama launched (the initiative) by saying that there is just too much of a stigma about mental health in this country,” said Skokie Public Library Director Carolyn Anthony, a member of Turning Point’s board of directors.
Anthony said that mental health issues need to be examined head on since they affect neighbors, friends, family. We need to be there for each other, she said.
“If there was ever a time we were unsure of this, just look at the news about Robin Williams,” Anthony said. “So many people were just devastated and said, ‘Oh, that wonderful actor that we all love so much. How can anybody be suffering that terribly and not get help?’ We just ache when we hear something like that. We do really want to help each other.”
Williams’ death impacted people around the country to be sure, but perhaps none more so than those who face clinical depression and bipolar disorder like Colton.
He now represents Cook County North Suburban National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a recent tenant in Turning Point’s Skokie building. He welcomed the chance to speak out, to try to eliminate the stigma that still attaches itself to those who struggle with mental illness.
Mental illness, he said, remains “stigmatized and taboo to discuss, attack and solve. This attitude makes me sick.”Colton’s story
Colton ran a wholesale apparel business in the Midwest for 37 years. Starting in 1972, he suffered four month-long depressions. He was finally hospitalized and sent to a residential facility for eight weeks where he received needed help.
“I could escape for four weeks at a time in those four depressions,” he said. “Because I did enough business in my business, I could escape for a month and no one would bother me.”
He recounted how he learned the apparel business and became better at what he did and then quite successful. But there was “a catch-22,” he said, emotion overcoming him.
“My family suffered because of my pursuit of the dollar. My leisure life and other passions faded away for the pursuit of the buck,” he said.
In 2005 and 2006, the spiraling economy crippled Colton’s business by shutting down his customers’ businesses. At age 60, he didn’t know how to reinvent himself.
“My self esteem was destroyed,” he said. “I could not focus or multi-task. Decision-making was impossible for me. I could not sleep. My doctors over-medicated me.”
But Colton found the help he needed, re-prioritized his life and now wants to make a difference for others. He went to college, learned about what happened to him and how to prevent it from happening again.
In addition to Turning Point, Creating Community Solutions and NAMI, this Skokie conversation was sponsored by the Skokie Chamber of Commerce, the library and Skokie’s fire and health and human services departments. It was truly reflective of a community coming together over mental health issues.
About 50 people including those from business and the mental health profession discussed ways to make a difference in the workplace. They shared information about best practices in meeting challenges to make sure employees’ mental health issues are addressed.
Turning Point has spent the year highlighting stories of recovery and how people can get the help they need. The horrible news about Robin Williams reflects just how difficult this can be, no doubt, but Steve Colton’s story and others like it prove that it’s more than possible.
Part of that road to recovery, though, is in openly and honestly discussing how best to address mental health issues as a society — just as Turning Point and others did on this somber night.
“We’re all vulnerable and we all need each other,” Turning Point CEO Ann Fisher Raney said. “And we benefit from our shared encouragement and understanding. I’m really glad we can have this conversation today.”