Robin Williams’ death at age 63 from an apparent suicide has come as a shock to a country full of fans who all feel they have some sort of personal connection to the actor and comedian. Williams’ death followed years of being in the public eye, from standup comedy and television shows like “Mork and Mindy” to family affairs like Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire, more critically adept movies such as Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, and finally a return to television last year. In all cases he was a consummate entertainer, vying for a laugh, a tear or a thought provoking moment, even when mid career he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse.
That the never ending performance was masking underlying depression shouldn’t shock anyone. What is shocking, however, is the absolutely frank discussion about the real issues of struggling with depression that has begun as a reaction to Williams’ death.
Discussing the fan reaction to Williams’ suicide, writer Victor Camillo notes beautifully that depression isn’t something a person can just actively and instantly fix. “Why didn’t these people understand that you can’t just will depression away? It’s not something solved by ‘reaching out’ or ‘knowing that people love you’; depression is not, in point of fact, you at all, but a malicious program that’s taken up residence in your brain that runs alongside your you-ness, and turns your brain into a zero-sum landgrab between malware and firmware,” writes Camillo. “Not only does the depression chip away at your energy and focus and clarity, but what you do retain is so exhausted from the nonstop defense of its resources that at times you just want to give in, give up, sink all the way into the warm, quiet darkness.”
“I didn’t know Robin Williams, but I bet he did know that he was loved. I know that I am loved. Maybe not on a Robin Williams scale, but I have friends and family who would do anything for me, and I absolutely know this,” wrote Molly Pohlig at Slate. “But there comes a point where love does not matter. When things are bad, I don’t care that people love me. All I can see is that I’m a burden, that everything I have ever done is wrong, and that these good people who love me are wrong as well. At my lowest, love cannot save me. Hope, prayers, daily affirmations—none of these can save me. Therapy and medicine are what matter, and those don’t always work either.”
Even those who had real brushes with the man have seen his death as a reminder of the real quicksand that is depression. “Robin Williams death has really taken me back into a part of my life I have long forgotten,” writes Joel Silberman at Blue Nation Review. “My first singing partner and wife was bipolar and eventually took her own life 3 years after we were divorced. When she was on a manic high, she was a brilliant singer and comedian. On the low end, she was suicidal. Eventually the low end won. Bipolar disease/depression is horrible to witness. It leaves us powerless to help those we love because when they are down, they hide in an inescapable black hole from which they cannot emerge.”
If there can ever be a silver lining in the tragedy that is a life cut short, it’s that in the wake of the news of William’s suicide, a real discussion about the struggles of mental health issues are becoming front page articles, water cooler talks and Facebook posts. As anyone who has dealt with depression, suicidal thoughts, mania, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or the plethora of other chemical imbalances that can strike the brain can tell you, far too often we hide our own weaknesses, illnesses and desperation until it is too late, often believing that there is simply no hope out there for us. If we do heal and recover, we often don’t publicly discuss the problem, what we felt, and how we managed to finally claw our way back to survival.
I know I had a difficult time going public myself.
As the Washington Post reports, although we have this conversation repeatedly when a death happens, the stigma around mental illness itself still refuses to go away at a rapid clip. Will this suicide change it?
For Williams’ sake, I hope so. And for the sake of the next person battling this illness, I hope so even stronger.
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