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.
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.