Why I Mourn for Robin Williams

A personal essay

Posted Aug 15, 2014

Depression doesn’t care if you’re rich or famous, poor or homeless.

It doesn’t care if you’re ordinary or superlatively gifted.

Depression cuts across social economic status, is found in every culture and in every country around the world.

It drapes itself over men, women and children - and thinks nothing of how it decays your mind, siphons your soul and crushes the glimpse of possibility, hope and freedom at every turn.

Depression is not an experience that fades with the next sunrise or can be shaken off with a newfound attitude. It won’t be cured by tough-love. Or rectified by ignoring it. And if you try to minimize its wrenching hold on your health, it’ll root itself even deeper. Depression can’t be willed away either. And it can’t be ranked alongside adjectives like blue, sad, dejected, down, melancholy or unhappy. Depression demands you to see it for what it truly is – an illness. A beast.

I know depression because I’ve battled it my entire life. Depression was a longstanding childhood illness that left me in chronic despair and frighteningly unaware of the effects of its grinding misery. Even when I attempted suicide at age 19 with a handgun, it didn’t occur to me that my thoughts of dying were rigid or shortsighted. It felt right. It felt comforting. It wasn’t a selfish choice or a selfless act. I was in deep emotional and physical pain and found a way to make it stop. But of course, it wasn’t a healthy choice. I was making that decision from a skewed reality.

Though suicide is the most preventable kind of death, over 3000 people die by suicide each day. That’s more than all the deaths of children and adults caused by accidents, wars and homicides around the world – combined. Another way to grasp the enormity of depression’s grip is that every 40 seconds someone dies by suicide. And every 41 seconds, loved ones try to make sense of it all. 

What I’ve come to know from my depressive episodes as a trained psychologist is how the illness of depression distorts thinking. Of all that depression does, this is the worst of the worst. The danger arrives when the neurobiology of the illness slows the executive functioning of the brain’s frontal lobes, areas responsible for problem solving and judgment. This causes reasoning and possibility to fade. This is when all hope is lost. Where a momentary impulse sets into motion life-ending actions. The corrosive effect of depression is what makes it one of the most lethal of psychological disorders. Upwards of 20% of people with severe depression die by suicide.

When someone like Robin Williams, a beloved icon, dies by suicide, it stuns and confounds. The collective experience is “How could this happen?” The truth is that the general public continues to remain uninformed about mental illness, but those of us who struggle with depression understand. We know that being funny isn’t the same thing as being happy. We know that while there are small personal victories, there are enduring struggles. And though sometimes we talk about our depression, we also mask its quiet agony.  

But what those of us who live with depression know all too well, is how lucky we are if we survive the beast.

And that we grieve, deeply, for those who don’t.

This is why I mourn for Robin Williams – and all of the other souls who die by suicide each day.