Growing up, I idolized Robin Williams. The opening scene of Mrs. Doubtfire is still one of the best introductions in film, and I basically spent the entire age of three impersonating Genie. His comedy wasn’t just funny; it was empathetic. He made you feel as if he was right there with you, laughing along. This is why his death hurts more than most celebrity deaths, because he connected to his audience in a very intimate manner. The death of Robin Williams affected me twice over. Not only had a childhood hero of mine passed away, but he had taken his own life. As someone who has been engaged in a lifelong struggle with depression, learning of his suicide crushed me more than I could’ve predicted.
Depression is a monster. It’s ugly, and relentless, and manipulative. It turns you against yourself, and transforms you into a weapon with which it attacks you. It feels like a mountain on your shoulders that only gets heavier. It doesn’t give up, and it doesn’t disappear. Sure, it may leave you alone for a while and with treatment may not ever come back as strong, but it never truly goes away. Depression isolates you from everything around you, makes you feel alone and hopeless. The worst part is the self-induced Stockholm syndrome that makes you feel as though everything you’re going through is completely justified, like you’ve done something to deserve it. It’s an infinite loop of pain.
In 2010, depression became the primary cause of disability in the world, according to the World Health Organization and there is roughly one successful suicide every 40 seconds. Even with such an obvious crisis at hand, we live in a society that stigmatizes depression, and mental illness in general. We shun those who are already shunning themselves. It made one of the most beloved and celebrated entertainers in the world feel like he was completely alone. There is a very real feeling of needing to hide your depression, from everyone else if possible. Most of the time, I actively avoid talking about it, even with people I know only have my best interest at heart. I almost didn’t write this, for fear of exposing myself.
I have no doubt that because of Robin Williams’ death, we’re on the verge of another national debate on mental illness. Every time there is a mass shooting, the conversation inevitably turns to mental health and what we can be doing to improve treatment of mental illnesses. Nothing is ever done, though. It’s too abstract and too easily hidden for most people to recognize and understand it. You can’t even begin to comprehend depression without experiencing it. It just doesn’t make sense. I can’t count the number of times someone has told me, “Just cheer up,” or “Get over it,” or “What do you really have to be so sad about?” While possibly well-intentioned, this kind of stuff only makes it worse, because you ask yourself, “Well if it’s that easy to just cheer up, what’s wrong with me that I’m not able do it?” If someone decides to share their depression with you, take it seriously. Do not shrug it off. Do not tell them it’s just a passing phase. They are already isolated as it is, and have probably struggled with saying those words out loud for a long time. 80% of people that seek treatment for depression are treated successfully, and yet we discourage so many people from ever speaking up. It’s an absolute shame and a crime that we stigmatize people already at their lowest point.
It is said that the funniest people are often the saddest. We all knew how funny Robin Williams was. He was one of the best, and somehow, we still managed to fail him.