As almost everyone with access to media of any kind knows by now, Robin Williams committed suicide yesterday morning. While he was relatively open about his battle with mental illness, a cross-section of the many, many reactions to his death on my Facebook feed—mostly sadness and shock—suggests that few people were aware that he faced personal issues of this nature. And that’s normal, especially when the celebrity in question penetrated our collective childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I grew up in a household without TV (thanks, ex-hippie parents) but still managed to obsessively watch Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire as a tofu-eating kid. Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and Good Will Hunting were three of the most influential films of my teenage years. I recently saw Awakenings and was riveted by Williams’ performance.
Despite his brilliant dramatic roles, Robin Williams was primarily a comic actor. And, as this uncharacteristically serious Cracked article points out, even the funniest among us kill themselves, counterintuitive as it might seem. The author, an editor of Cracked, writes:
“… while I don’t know what percentage of funny people suffer from depression, from a rough survey of the ones I know and work with, I’d say it’s approximately ‘all of them.’ So when I hear some naive soul say, ‘Wow, how could a wacky guy like [insert famous dead comedian here] just [insert method of early self-destruction here]? He was always joking around and having a great time!’ my only response is a blank stare.”
What can we learn from this? That depression is unpredictable. That it manifests in different ways for different people. That it’s easily hidden. That you shouldn’t make assumptions about a loved one’s state of mind based on his or her ability to make you laugh.
I’ll add that Robin William’s death has affected me on a more personal level.
The links between epilepsy and depression are unequivocal: according to this journal article, whose numbers are more or less in line with others I read, the prevalence of major depressive disorder among people with epilepsy is as high as 58% for those with intractable seizures. The same article cites research showing that having epilepsy might put one at up to ten times the risk of the general population of committing suicide. That’s scary business.
Though it’s not something that I’m particularly vocal about, I’ve had, and have, as I’ve mentioned here before, my own struggles with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder. This summer, post-concussions and full of Topamax, has been particularly brutal.
Even if it came at an enormous cost, I’m heartened by the surge in interest in and increased awareness of mental health issues that’s resulted from this suicide. The tragic loss of a beloved figure tends to unite us, to make us realize that the prevailing stigma around psychiatric conditions isn’t OK. I just hope that the conversation doesn’t end as quickly as it began.