When I first heard the news that Robin Williams had made an intentional exit from this life, the first thing I wanted to think was that the cause of death, suicide, was totally unexpected. Unfortunately, that would have been a lie . . . most of us know, at some level, that depression often affects many of those celebrities who seem to “have it all.” It also affects many of us less than stellar achievers who also seem to “have enough.” Depression is a terribly destructive disease and its prevalence in our culture is no longer “surprising” or “unexpected.” However, what is surprising is the resilience of the stigma attached to acknowledging it that exists within your friends, your family, or yourself. Shame goes with owning up to mental illness and this allows an overwhelmingly large percentage of sufferers to try and hobble through life dealing with an inner demon that is often too effective in eating away at their defenses.
As a counselor who has worked with a large number of individuals affected by depression, I can speak to the power that it holds over a person. When a person is depressed, he knows he is depressed. He sees his life shrinking away, the boundaries of existence growing so much narrower, just as his disinterest in expanding the barriers grows stronger. If someone is newly diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening physiological disease, chances are that they will begin scouring the internet for new developments in treatment, experimental therapies, or miracle clinics. If someone is hit by depression, their internet searches may have a much darker, fatal flavor – suicide methods, last testaments and wills, and so on. For many, the medical or therapeutic cure does not seem worth the effort.
When someone who worked so hard to bring laughter and joy to so many perishes at his own hands, we should feel blindsided and appalled. Unfortunately, the “tears of a clown” are seldom on display, but we all know that they are falling. What should be appalling is that we are living in a world where too many people deal with depressions so deep that the “permanent and fatal resolution of a temporary problem” is the option they choose. Robin Williams’ death shows that even those who have what most of us believe was everything to live for, the financial means to achieve it, and the emotional support of family and friends, and adoration from an audience always ready with a belly laugh, face as terminal an end to their depression as your shamed and isolated next door neighbor.
Fighting to end the stigma of mental illness is an advocacy goal that every one of us should undertake, even at the most grassroots level – touching base and checking in on those you know who wrestle with inner demons and mental illness. Addiction kills. Depression kills. Shame and stigma also kill. Do what you can to fight back.