I was going to write about the ancient burial chambers on the Isles of Scilly today, so expect that to come later this week. Instead, I feel compelled to write something about the sad news today. As I’m sure you know by now, one of the most talented comedians and actors of our time, Robin Williams, has died aged 63. His death is apparently due to suicide, the end result of years of severe depression compounded by alcohol and drug problems.
I probably first encountered Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin, and then grew up with his films being always there, a comforting background presence, whether comedic or dramatic. What Dreams May Come was one of the first films that really made me and many others of my generation think about death, life and what it all means. Dead Poets Society remains one of the most profoundly life-affirming, and death-accepting, films of all time.
What Robin Williams’ tragic death reminds me is that mental illnesses like depression are very real, and can be fatal.
Already on the internet, I’ve seen amongst the outpourings of grief, people saying he was ‘weak’ or ‘selfish’ and that he ‘gave in’. No, he was ill. Is a cancer sufferer weak or selfish if their illness kills them? It’s time mental illness was understood as a real illness and talked about openly, instead of in hushed whispers of shame or stigma.
Depression is not the same as sadness, and it cannot be cured by success, money, happiness, or positive thinking. If one of the funniest and most thoughtful people in the world can’t think themselves out of it, then nobody can.
The New Republic, not normally a website I find myself agreeing with, has published an article saying that Robin Williams’ death should be the start of a new conversation about mental illness.
Robin Williams’ death hit me particularly hard because I also suffer from clinical depression, and have a family history of mental illness and addiction. My depression is episodic rather than constant, and bad episodes can regularly involve thoughts or even attempts of suicide. It took me a long time to accept that this is an illness, the result of brain chemistry, rather than a weakness or character flaw on my part. Depression is also astoundingly common, but generally very poorly understood.
I have been treated with SSRI anti-depressants. While I am not on them currently, they probably saved my life when I was prescribed them after going to my doctor during a particularly bad bout of depression. Being prescribed anti-depressants does not necessarily mean you’ll be on them all your life, but I know that if and when things get bad again, I can go back to the doctor and ask for another course of treatment.
Now, there are legitimate concerns about doctors prescribing pills too frequently, and I share worries about the medicalisation of natural human emotions such as grief, anger and loss. But depression is not a natural emotion, and treatment can and does work.
“The apparent suicide of Robin Williams is a tragic and shocking event. Our thoughts are with his friends and family at this very difficult time.
“We would urge anyone who is experiencing the pain and distress of suicidal feelings to try and speak to someone, whether friend, family, their doctor or a charity such as Mind or Samaritans.”
If you need information or advice about mental health problems, or need somewhere to turn for support, call the Mind Infoline on 0300 123 3393.
The lesson I want to take from Robin Williams life is to always find the good things and moments in life, and live for them. The lesson I hope we all take from his death is that mental illness needs to be understood, accepted, and treated.
If you feel depressed or suicidal, please talk to your doctor or call one of the following helplines:
UK: Samaritans (not a religious charity, don’t let the name fool you) 08457 90 90 90
US: Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
For other countries, Wikipedia has a list of suicide help lines that you can use.
Let me leave you with a scene from Dead Poets Society: a reminder to seize the day.
N.B. In a slightly lighter note, spare a thought for the similarly-named British pop singer Robbie Williams, who has been tweeted at a lot today by people thinking he has died. Oh dear, internet, oh dear!