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Robin Williams: An Unfortunately Common Tragedy

robin-williams

I remember watching Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire when I was younger and thinking it was one of the greatest displays of comedic acting I had ever seen. As I grew older and watched his stand up routines and some of his more serious acting roles, my respect for him only increased.

Learning that he had possibly taken his own life was a devastating blow. I have no direct connection to Williams, but his celebrity brought him into our homes and lives.

How can someone so talented, famous, funny, and full of life be hopeless enough to allegedly wrap a belt around his neck and hang himself?

You felt the electricity of Williams’ spirit when you watched him: on the big screen, on stage, TV – even through his voiceovers. Williams had that mythical star quality, the X-factor – he had “it,” that mysterious appeal that made him stand out more than millions of others. You can’t really define that quality, but you definitely know it when you see it. And we saw it shine brightly in Robin Williams.

The shock reverberating in social media and conversations about Williams’ death revolve around the disconnect between that image of a bright happy star and a man who killed himself. We can’t seem to reconcile the two. How can anyone experiencing depression and difficulty be hopeful in light of this kind of tragedy?

We know Williams struggled with depression, addiction, and may have possibly been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Someone more poetic would call them his demons. We tend to overlook those difficulties to instead point out his fame, his fortune, and the perceived invincibility to those very demons. We tend to project what celebrity lives must be like. They have millions of fans, riches, homes, new cars, and travel all over the world. They have it made. How can they possibly be depressed?

We see many celebrity lives end way too early, by suicide or accidental overdoses: Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Whitney Houston, Hunter S. Thompson, Alexander McQueen, Michael Jackson….the list is long and tragic. Now, we add one more name. So why are we continuously surprised when celebrities cope by abusing drugs or taking their lives?

Is someone really more equipped to handle depression because of fame? There is the undeniable fact that celebrities have more resources at their disposal. Does that make them more resilient, however, more worthy, more adept at handling distress…more?

Over 15 million Americans deal with depression in a given year. Globally, 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression. Anyone is susceptible. Williams’ death is a perfect example of depression’s indiscriminate nature.

Depression can be an insidious beast. It’s more than just a fleeting feeling of sadness. Depression knocks on your door and wants to move in permanently. It robs you of joy, of activities and people you used to enjoy. Depression wants to bring more beasts into your home: addictions, chronic pain, physical ailments, guilt, and shame. Depression is debilitating and paralyzing. Depression can be fatal.

Suicide is especially difficult because it is preventable. Loved ones left behind ache because they wonder if there was something they could have done. If they had reached out more often, asked more questions, offered more help, would their loved one still be here? We blame ourselves for not showing enough care, compassion, or love. We blame professionals for not being mind-readers and predicting what would happen. We blame those who have passed for not reaching out to us or taking the “easy way out.”

Let me assure you, suicide is not easy. Every biological instinct we have fights against the urge to take our own lives. It is not a natural process; the body’s instinct is to stay alive, not give up. Clients with depression who come into my office fight against that very urge on a daily basis. Imagine how exhausting that fight can be. Imagine how desperate and hopeless you must feel to act upon that urge. Almost 40,000 people a year, in America alone, lose that fight.

If there is anything we can learn from Williams’ tragic death, it is to pay more attention to what we and our loved ones are feeling. Depression is a serious disease, but it can be treated. If you are suffering from depression, if you feel hopeless, and suicide seems like the only answer, please reach out to someone. Anyone. Strangers count. If you suspect a loved one is in the throes of depression, don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be left with regrets and what ifs.

As a society, we need to be more mindful of depression and other mental health disorders. We too often brush off people with depression or anxiety as being whiny or dramatic or just needing to get over it. We have made leaps and bounds in understanding different disease states, yet mental health illnesses remain heavily stigmatized in 2014.

Recovering from a mental health illness is not easy, but it is achievable. We need to start a discussion about what mental health means, what it looks like, who it affects, and how we can help..

We need to think more in terms of community support. Our responsibility as a society is to help people who feel like individuals feel like they’re part of a larger group, like they belong. Helping people like Williams before they reach the point of no return.

Robin Williams was a prolific entertainer. We will miss his light, his enthusiasm, his talent, the countless laughs he gave us, and the poetry of his life.

To quote John Keating from Dead Poet’s Society:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

What will your verse be?

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