Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why did the Robin Williams news hit so many so hard?

We hear of celebrity deaths frequently. Old favourites die of old age, new favourites may die of drug overdoses, illness, or in accidents. There are also some suicides. The news of their death makes the rounds, now much more quickly than ever because of the Internet. We see retrospectives of their work, people comment on beloved scenes or events, and then we move on.

But yesterday, the Internet exploded with the news of the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams. From the first moment I saw the news on my sister's Facebook page to just before I began writing this, my own FB and Twitter feeds were overwhelmed with posts about his death, a suspected suicide. Why is it that Williams brought out such a reaction? Why are people quite literally in tears at the news? While I can't claim to know the answers, I have my theories, brought about by my own experience with depression.

For many people who have or have had depression, there is that knowledge that it may become too much to bear, that you may not be able to take it any more. Some of us have also lost a loved one to suicide, which makes that feeling even worse. And when a person as out there as Williams was can't take it any more, it's scary. It makes some of us feel more vulnerable, more exposed, more "that could have been me."

There is also the shock that if someone with his resources, with his support systems - if he can't make it, how can the average person? From all the reports I've read and listened to since last night, Williams was a kind, giving, gentle person who went out of his way to help others. And if he couldn't feel that the help was enough for him, what does that mean to the rest of us? There is also the acknowledgment of the pain he must have been feeling because many of us can identify and remember how horrible it was. To know that someone else felt that way - it is heartbreaking.

And then there is the added stigma of mental illness, of discussing it, of admitting it, of putting it out there for others to see. Depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia - those are all words that make many people too uncomfortable. We hear of violent crimes and if there is any hint of a past with mental illness, it is often mentioned in media reports. It's even part of our language, that someone must be crazy, mental, schizophrenic, or manic if he or she does something outside what we perceive to be normal. Who would want to admit to an illness that is connected to only bad things?

So my biggest theory is that Williams's death hit too close to home to many and it opened up a conversation that many people are afraid to have. Williams graced us with his humour and his talent ,and seemed to have it all. Yet he didn't. He missed something incredibly important - good mental health. It reminds us that we are all vulnerable.

Here in Quebec, as in other jurisdictions, we've had many media campaigns about understanding depression, but it's hard to tell if they've been effective. Right now, how to ask for help and numbers to call are all over social media. People are saying that they hope that his death will begin a conversation about mental health, depression in particular. But is this effective? Yes, right now there's a groundswell of support for people who may be suffering, but will this continue? Or does this become just another blip on the radar - not unlike the big uproar over Corey Monteith's death, or Philip Seymour Hoffman's death from overdose? The drug issue was everywhere then - but it drifted away very quickly.

The Williams experience - watching his sometimes over-the-top manic comedy could be uncomfortable sometimes. There's no doubt that Robin Williams was a comic genius. This morning, a Montreal radio host was talking about a show Williams did here that started with a 20-minute piece on our city. This wasn't a "I love [insert name of city] and I'm glad to be here" piece. It was one where he'd obviously done his homework and he knew where to jab for a good laugh. But other times, his comedy seemed manic, like he had to keep going to get a laugh or else he wouldn't know what to do. I don't know if that was the case, but it was a feeling I got sometimes, and those times it made me uncomfortable. Maybe it hit too close to home - who knows?

And yet, he was also a wonderful dramatic actor. He could set aside that comedic aspect and really pull you into a movie, making you believe in the character he portrayed. His drama had an edge to it that I couldn't quite place. I preferred his dramatic roles over his comedic ones, but even in the comedies, something else came through.

He will be missed. There will be more tributes. The next Academy Awards presentation will honour him. He'll be remembered when we see the movies on Netflix or where ever else we watch them. But will we have changed how we see depression? Sadly, I don't think so.










11 comments:

Pippa said...

"they hope that his death will begin a conversation about mental health, depression in particular."

Will begin? -- for the Nth time! How many times has the conversation begun? I agree with you, Marijke.

Anonymous said...

I would comment, but I don't know what to say. All I know is that I don't usually cry when a celebrity dies, and I cried for Robin. Maybe because I've watched him since his "Happy Days" appearance, and therefore feel like I "know" him, maybe it's because his death reminded me of my cousin who suicided 30+ years ago, or maybe because it drives home the fact that I really, really, don't know why some people survive depression while it's fatal for others. THAT is a mystery I'd love to see solved.

Marijke Vroomen-Durning said...

You're right Pippa. How many times do we have to begin?

Beverly Akerman MSc said...

So the question must be asked: is the treatment really effective? Perhaps so, for some (or many). But I guess there must be many for whom it is not. Because if someone with his resources couldn't get it right, you really have to wonder...

Interesting post, Marijke. But I think you have missed the irony factor: the incredible funny man who was, deep down, so sad. The tears of the clown thing. Unlike PSH, Williams made so many happy with his performances. He was so versatile and so gifted. Today I was imaging Robin Williams in conversation with the late greats Maya Angelou and Kurt Vonnegut. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall beside them...

Marijke Vroomen-Durning said...

Thanks Beverly. I purposely didn't comment on the comedian being deeply sad - that's been discussed in many places already and it's a bit of a stereotype for many of the edgier comedians.

I think someone on my FB page made a very good comment that addresses the first question - "he''s a reminder that for many, there is no "well"...there's only the time between now & losing to your inner-demons"

Paulineee said...

The conversation will start as many times as it needs to. Each time, it takes one tiny baby step further.

Think about what this news would have been like in the '60s or '70s. The real cause of death would have been hushed up if possible and if not, I believe the reaction would have been very different than it is today. I think people would have fallen back on fears and misconceptions and found a way to demonize the man and the illness. Now we have an outpouring of support, and I'm starting to see people referring others to help lines and charities. There's a long way to go but it's very different than it was. It takes time to change public attitudes and if you think back as far as you can remember as an adult, there has been major change already.

Marijke Vroomen-Durning said...

Yes, you are right. But those baby steps are so small that the movement just seems too slow. :-(

Ruth Lee said...

Very thoughtful writing. Thank you for reminding us that Robin's death may open up wounds for many who have lost someone to suicide. It is always good to be ready to have that conversation, or to give that hug......

Pamela said...

Thank you for another excellent viewpoint regarding depression and suicide Marijke. Having lived with the spectre of depression in our lives for the past 20 years with Mr. B, it feels like we've come no further now than in the beginning, when it comes to awareness and talking and treatment.

The words "mental illness" and "depression" cause needless uncomfortable silences in conversations. We need to get over that stigma and start treating these diseases like any other physical disease. Talk about them. Raise the issue. Share resources. Care.

Let's keep talking, and not let the subject drop as Robin's passing fades behind other news. It's a big world and a big problem, but we can all help if we refuse to sweep the subject under the carpet.

Bunky

Michele C. Hollow said...

I've been in a funk about it all day. He really was a star. You post really hit home for me. Thank You Marijke!

Gary Levin said...

I remember when I trained as a medical student there were many institutions called 'insane asylums'. Today almost all of them are gone or renamed euphemistically as behavioral health institutes. Except for public facilities, ore academic centers there are no mental health facilties that have coordinated or managed care. Mental health institutions were closed down due to the advent of more effective psychotropic drugs, and also to elimnate 'warehousing' of the chronically mental ill. Today there are few available, most treatment is done in an outpatient setting which is often not adequate. If we can manage medical illness, then we should be able to do the same for dysmorphic brain disorders. The entire medical profession needs to get off it's duff and lobby for better mental health care. It will pay dividends for the rest of medicine for surely other medical conditons will have better outcome with a true Mind-body connection.