Robin Williams committed suicide.
Even for the hard-hearted among us, that sentence will always cut to the bone. But it isn’t shameful and I’m glad we’re all talking about it.
Robin’s battle with depression and addiction were well-documented. He even joked about it himself, in interviews and comedy routines, highlighting his pain dipped in humour, so his loving public could digest it a little easier. It’s hard to swallow, depression. A bitter, lifelong pill for the unlucky ones. Last month Robin took himself to a rehab facility in Minnesota for some ‘maintenance work’ on his successful 20 plus years of sobriety.
Robin was lucky in that way. He had the money and support ready and available to him. His death, however, is a stark reminder for those who do not suffer from depression, we who do not understand the depths of hell sufferers must sink to. It reminds us that their struggle to continue to exist carrying such exhausting pain can understandably sometimes be too much to bear. A reminder that we should be proud of each time they are able to claw their way back to the surface for air and stay there. Instead of attaching stigma and shame with our silence, our uncomfortableness with the subject. We should talk about it much more.
I spoke to Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill, a psychologist with many years experience about the fact that depression still has such stigma attached to it. “Stigma is the natural consequence of distancing, making something ‘other’ and undesirable, and that stops us being open,” she said. “We’ve attached stigma to many things in the past, from being an unmarried mother to having cancer, but we’ve moved on by dispelling the ignorance and fear that went with those things.”
Depression is a terrible mental disease which, at its very worst, can trick sufferers into believing that the only way to stop the pain is to move on out. As every human being is different, so are the reasons and causes of depression. There is no, ‘one-size-fits all’ medicine, counselling or therapy.
Dr Conboy-Hill recalled in explanation, “One person I knew said that getting up in the morning was the hardest thing she did all day. She didn’t mean that she had an easy life; she meant that the effort involved was so enormous it often took more energy than she could muster.”
Depression is treatable and lots of people successfully manage to control it for long periods of their lives. But in order to be treated, the sufferer needs to first ask for help, and in our society, where we can use the word ‘mental’ derogatorily on the front page of a newspaper to describe a sick person, this can prove impossible. Especially for someone suffering from illness or low-self esteem, and depression as a result.
A writer-friend of Dr Conboy-Hill explained his depressive phases in a starkly beautiful metaphor: it was the price he paid ‘to catch lightning in a bottle’. What a price.
One day, about 15 years ago, a male friend of mine walked off the top of a building. He’d rung us the day before and asked us to come out that evening. He had gathered a whole group of our friends for the evening but I just couldn’t go as much as I wanted to. And I couldn’t tell him why. I couldn’t say we were caring for someone else suffering from depression at the time too. I didn’t tell him I guess because of the stigma that existed at the time. Same reason he probably didn’t tell us how he was feeling. So we could have told each other, had it not been for the stigma. The next morning I found out he had left everyone after midnight and gone to the top of a block of flats and walked off. He walked off 25 storeys. The block is still there. Sometimes the ‘What ifs’ clog up my throat as I pass by.
Since then, other friends have struggled with depression in one form or another and I make sure they know they can talk to me about it. Whenever they want, whenever they are ready. I read a beautiful quote from the NY Times film critic, Bilge Ebiri about Robin. He said:”You start off as a kid seeing Robin Williams as a funny man. You come of age realising many of his roles are about keeping darkness at bay.” Robin was one of the lucky ones then, he had creativity, humour, acting to hide behind, to pull him through, to keep that darkness away. Until he couldn’t anymore. He had apparently been diagnosed with Parkinsons too. He was 63, he did so well.
Last year, after listening and reading about the shocking number of suicides of many young men in the UK that go unreported, I decided to run a 10km race for CALM, a charity set up specifically to prevent male suicide in the UK. According to the latest figures, male suicide accounts for a scary 77% of all suicides here and is now the single biggest cause of death in men aged 20 – 49 in England and Wales.
Men often find it hard to speak up and ask for help. But I think we should all speak up. Society doesn’t make it easy for anyone to be honest or feel comfortable about their mental illness but Robin Williams’ death has got everyone talking about it now. And, as Dr Conboy-Hill put it, “…to support and preserve those individuals for whom the stultifying bleakness of the down phase threatens their lives, we have to stop seeing it as ‘other’ and start making it possible for them to ‘capture lightning’ on behalf of all those who can’t. That’s what Robin Williams did.”
And for that, Captain, our Captain, we will always salute you.
CALM ( Campaign Against Living Miserably) has a helpline which is open from 5pm to midnight, 365 days a year.
Nationwide: 0800 58 58 58
London: 0808 802 58 58
Text: 07537 404 717
Or you can find them online here.
Time to Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/
Grassroots Suicide Prevention: http://prevent-suicide.org.uk/