In the past few days we will all have heard the tragic news of Robin Williams’ death, in what has now been confirmed as a case of apparent suicide. This brought to an end the extraordinary life of an enigmatic comic genius; a life filled with laughter, tragedy, riches and poverty.
For my generation, and perhaps those a few years older, it is hard to overstate just how big a role he may have played in our youth. I immediately think of Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji, the latter two being a couple of my most fondly remembered childhood movies. Even films where you don’t see his face – I think of Happy Feet and, of course, Disney’s Aladdin, in which he played the larger-than-life Genie – still bear his undeniable energy and comic signature.
A good portion of his other work, spanning 80 films and 26 television series in total, will not be remembered for their great reviews. But you can bet the ones that aren’t worth raving about still benefit from at least one watchable character, thanks to Williams’ unmistakable presence on screen and a charm that never failed to make his audience smile, if not laugh out loud. This may be a simple skill, but it is one that will be sorely missed from a man who had largely perfected it.
By now, much has been spoken about Williams’ troubles with anxiety and depression. I’ve been pleased to see that the public reaction to his supposed suicide has been (for the most part) a positive acknowledgment of a very real struggle.
Don’t get me wrong; it would have been better – from our perspective at least – if Williams was still alive today, and this tragedy had never happened. Alas, what has happened, has happened. The wheels have been set in motion for the rest of time, and it is our job to ensure future generations have better knowledge than we had at our disposal for dealing with the black hole that is depression.
It is within this context that I say reaction to Williams’ suicide has been positive. That we at least respect the context surrounding it shows the progress made in raising awareness of mental illness in Western culture over the past decade. No longer do we outwardly ask so many naïve questions along the lines of; “what did he have to be depressed about? Look at everything he had going for him”. Although, as I will go on to detail, I’m not sure whether this is because people actually realise what a nonsensical question it is, or if they just now think it’s an inappropriate thing to say without knowing the reasons for this.
While there have been isolated comments about the supposed ‘selfishness’ of his actions (it boggles my mind how one could use that word, out of all the possible words you could have used to describe this particular man, who spent his life giving the rest of us so much), the overwhelming response has been one of sadness, of paying tribute to a man who clearly had his demons. There have been renewed calls for those who are struggling with similar issues to ‘tell someone about it’ rather than suffer in silence.
Among these calls was a post by Jason Manford on social media that asked people to “please seek help. No one will think you’re being melodramatic, I swear. No one will think you’re silly or wasting people’s time. No one will say ‘what? But you’re always so happy, maybe you’re just having a bad day’. For some people, every day is a bad day and they just get through it, but sometimes they don’t… Please seek help.”
His intention is certainly admirable, and I hope it helps some people. But if Jason Manford really thinks that, even in this day, others won’t consider us melodramatic or silly or time wasters when we try talking about our depression, then he is simply mistaken. This attitude still exists in many people even if they don’t openly admit it.
There have also been certain disparaging comments, though they have admittedly been few, regarding the fact that the media seems to have given Robin Williams’ suicide more care and attention than the current crises in Israel, Gaza and Iraq, where people are dying on a larger scale. Their tone implies that this disproportionate coverage is wrong and that we should somehow care more about one over the other.
I’d like to be very clear at this point: it is amazingly hypocritical of anyone to claim that a depressed person should feel more open to talk about how they’re doing, while at the same time voicing the opinion that there are other things in the world so much worse than it. You are part of this problem. You are precisely one of the reasons why someone who is feeling depressed will not open up.
By all means, there may be worse things happening in the world than one person’s depression. I’m not saying you’re wrong about that. But this is an objective observation. And depression is a very subjective illness. The two cannot be equally measured against each other.
Plus, ask yourself which of these situations you are more capable of affecting. You cannot directly save those who are hit by rockets in the Middle East, but you could certainly play a huge role in helping someone much closer to home get through their depression. How you don’t do this is by pointing towards darker scenarios – on the contrary, you should be doing what you can to make the world seem like a more hopeful place to live in.
For every person who claims it is not right that we care about Williams’ death over the deaths of others in worse circumstances, there is a victory for the negative thoughts that depression exasperates in another person’s mind. The depressed person also may think; why am I important, when there is all this other evil in the world? Why try talking to people whom will only try reminding me that other people have it so much worse.
Bear in mind that it is impossible for any of us to care about every situation in the same way. Won’t you naturally care more for the death of your own family members than those of someone else? Or would you think to yourself in your sorrow, ‘no, my feelings are clearly wrong – there are many who have it worse’? If this realisation does cross your mind then I doubt it’s a method for easing your pain; it may only succeed in increasing it. Similarly, the reason so many of us care deeply for Robin Williams’ death in particular is because of a sentimental attachment not unlike that which we feel for a friend or relative.
My convoluted point is that as much as some will try to encourage those suffering to speak out about it, a certain lack of understanding still exists on the individual level. Sure, the wider stigma may be fast disappearing, but we still have the many isolated cases where people will use the argument of ‘look at everything you have, there’s nothing to be depressed about’ as a genuine attempt to make you feel better. Pointing out that there are blatant worse things happening elsewhere is along the same line of reasoning, and while it may be true on some level, it is also inherently unhelpful to the individual. If you’re going to encourage them to speak out, make sure you’re prepared to listen rather than just give an opinion.
The reason I highlight listening (my definition of listening here is quite different from the usual ‘sit quietly and wait to speak’ version that many are familiar with) is because each person’s depression may have subtle differences. Symptoms are not common across the board. Of course we now have good information on what those symptoms are; often though, people will not exhibit all of them.
For some, there may be a past event that triggered their depression. For others, there will be seemingly no reason – it is just who they are, their condition intrinsically linked to personality. I believe Robin Williams fitted into the latter category.
He enjoyed making other people laugh. No doubt he was more of a listener himself when it came to social interactions. He was the kind of person that others would go to for a release, whether that be through his movies or otherwise. For him to then talk about whatever troubles he was having, regardless of whether or not people around him would have been willing to listen and understand, might have been a very hard, or even unnatural thing for Robin Williams to do. Which, of course, only serves to illustrate further the kind of multi-layered condition we are dealing with.
There does seem to have been some erosion of the stigma that once surrounded depression; a condition many people once refused to acknowledge even existed in the form that we’ve now become almost globally familiar with. This is certainly progress, though there has not yet been ideal progress across the board. I feel that the medical community still has so many discoveries to come in this area, and we must not allow ourselves to start thinking that simply knowing the signs and accepting the symptoms of depression is enough.