Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, Mental Illness and a Society That Fails Us All

In the coming days and weeks, there will be many posts written about the life and death of Robin Williams. The news of his death, his life appearing to have ended at his own hands, came as a shock to most of us. A tragic loss for his family, for the entertainment industry, for us all.

Any time a celebrity dies, we tend to pause as a collective, not because their death is more important than the death of anyone else the world lost on that given day, but because there is a level of familiarity with them that is uncommon for the average person.

There are always those quick to criticize people affected by the death of someone they've never met in person, those who say that the outpouring of grief is false and misplaced, that it is some indication of a society with twisted priorities, that the deaths of celebrities should somehow be of lesser import than the death of the ordinary person. The flaw in that reasoning is a simple one, and it is this: we may not know celebrities, their deaths may not impact our daily lives, but their reach is greater. They are loved by more. Someone like him was especially loved for reasons that go beyond film credits. He was so open and candid about his struggles in this life, he was so revered by fans around the world, he was so artistically gifted that his sudden loss is reverberating through our collective soul.

Good Morning, Vietnam. Touchstone Pictures.
Robin, in particular, was a household staple for so many of us. My first memories of watching television with my parents as a child are dominated by his portrayal of Mork. I grew up with him in my living room.

He made me laugh, he taught me to be careful of what I wish for, he taught me to be tolerant of that which I do not understand, he taught me to use discretion with the words I choose, he taught me that a parent will do anything for his children, he taught me to follow my passions, and he did it all through the characters he played on the screen.

As I grew older, as life became more complicated, as I waded through the struggles with my own personal demons, I began to appreciate people like him more than I ever thought possible. I began to understand how comedy derives from the darkest parts of our hearts, how it is often purely a survival mechanism. I saw that those who appear the most lighthearted are so often the most internally conflicted.

He owned that, he owned all of it.

Robin fought depression for decades. What those who do not have personal experience with this condition fail to understand is vast, and that lack of understanding leads to unfair judgments about those who have walked this dark path. Depression doesn't care how famous you are. It doesn't care how wealthy you are. It doesn't care how successful you are. It doesn't care how good things are going for you. It doesn't care that you might otherwise be healthy and well.

Depression doesn't care. 

It can happen to anyone at any time, sometimes without warning. It can take you in its grasp and infiltrate your mind, drag you down to the darkest pit. It can convince you that you are worthless even if the world adores you. It can tell you that they, all those people who love you, would be better off without you. It tells you that you mean nothing to anyone. It creeps into your brain and starts to contort the truth, distort reality.

Sometimes you can go on and be functional, hiding this internal dialogue from the rest of the world successfully. Sometimes you want to crawl into a hole and never come out again. Sometimes you can harness the energy and will to get up and do what needs to be done. Sometimes the voice in your head that tells you that you aren't good enough or smart enough or talented enough or worthy enough wins.

Depression isn't selfish.

Depression isn't a choice.

Depression isn't revenge.

Depression is a mental illness, a medical condition, that we do not fully understand and that we don't take seriously enough. When people make the assumption that someone well loved and wealthy couldn't possibly be depressed, they are wrong. Flat wrong.

Depression doesn't care. 

Far too often, those in this place turn to self medicating, either because they are too ashamed or afraid to seek help, or because they have sought help and the treatments they have tried don't work, or because the treatments are too expensive, or because..because..because...the reasons as numerous as the people in that place.

Self medication can take many forms, and it can turn quickly into addiction. Williams struggled with this as well.

Robin appears to have also struggled with bi-polar disorder, using the wild ups and downs to draw inspiration for the characters he portrayed. He so often seemed larger than life. Perhaps it was because of this condition, one that he found a way to tap into, to channel, to use as a resource when he needed it.

I find it a fascinating study on our society that there are far fewer people faulting him for his death than there were when Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this year. Hoffman died at his own hands of an overdose, the result of self medicating for depression. Williams died at his own hands, the result of depression, and though his chosen forms of self medication don't appear to be the proximate cause of death here, they were likely a factor just as they were with Hoffman. They certainly were a part of his life in the past decades.

People were quick to chastise Hoffman though, much faster to lay blame at his feet, for the simple fact that drugs were the cause of death. Why?

Both he and Williams suffered from mental illness, both of them had a hand in their deaths, both of them left behind wildly successful careers, both of them left behind grieving families.

What is so different in how the masses have reacted this time? Is it really just the drugs? Are we so brainwashed as a society that we honestly believe that those who die because of overdoses are to be faulted, even if the reason they are using is the same as the person who commits suicide?

If my theory proves sound in the weeks and months to come, my hope is that we can open a more serious dialogue this time about mental illness. People were so distracted by the drugs in Hoffman's death that it became the primary focus, not the mental illness that led him to their use. Williams' past wasn't much different, even if the actual mechanism of his death was.

Those who commit suicide aren't doing it to hurt other people, they are doing it because in that moment, they feel like there is no other possible option.

Suicide is, to them, a way out. A way to stop feeling whatever it is that they are feeling. A way to make the pain go away. A way to stop the noise and find peace. Quiet.

Just to make it stop.

We absolutely need to do a better job of understanding mental illness. Of understanding depression. Of understanding what leads people to self medication. Of what leads people to suicide attempts, to self harm.

We need to do a better job of looking out for friends, for family. We need to encourage people to get help. We need to get help ourselves if we need it. We need to rewrite how our society sees mental illness. We need to treat it as the medical condition it is. We need patience and understanding and compassion instead of judgment and cruelty. We must build a system equipped to help all those who need it.

We need to understand that mental illness isn't something that ever really goes away, but it is something we can learn to live with if we have the right support system in place.

If you or someone you love needs help, please get it. The following links were provided by The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

Please share these resources. You never know which of your friends may need them (whether right now, or someday).

National Suicide Prevention Helpline (U.S.)
1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK)

International Directory of Suicide Hotlines
Need someone to listen & help without judging?

Warmline "Listening Line" Directory (U.S.)

Befrienders (International)
Concerned about someone online?

The semicolon is used when a sentence could have ended, but didn't.

The semicolon movement is for anyone who has ever self-harmed, has a personality disorder, or has tried to commit suicide. The semicolon is a sign of hope. Your sentence is not over yet, remember that.

If you have ever harmed yourself, attempted suicide, or just want to support the cause, put a semicolon on your wrist or wherever you feel would mean the most. Every time you see it think of something that makes life worth living.

In the words of John Keating, a role that will forever belong to Robin Williams,

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

What will your verse be?

Will it be one of judgment or will it be one of compassion?

In this, we have a choice.

Peace and strength to all those reading. 

You matter. 
You are loved. 
You are worthy.


  1. This is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Xo

  2. This may be my favorite posts. Beautifully written and well done. Your verse is your continued commitment to enlighten us all and make us think more about the things that matter. Love you, Munch

  3. Reading this has just released the tears I've been holding in all day. Thank you Kelly!

  4. Thank you Kelly for another wonderfully written piece. As you know my 19 year old son harris died of an accidental overdose in October, like Robin Williams he suffered from mental health issues and subsequent substance abuse and addiction, this is the disease co-occurring disorders (COD). I posted this on our foundations's facebook page www.facebook.com/theharrisprojectCOD last night and hope you deem it worthy to share with your audience:

    I could not be more devastated by the news of Robin Williams' death. A wonderful, talented, creative, funny person who gave so much of himself in everything he did. In the hours following his death I am haunted by the fact that he was in a rehab facility this summer, this very summer.... Haunted because I know from our own experiences with harris that very little time and attention is placed on the mental health piece in rehabilitation programs. Obviously I did not know Robin Willams, but I know what it was like to live with someone whose mind moved at warped speed, thinking so fast that to live within that body had to be exhausting. It was for harris. I pray that the time has come for us to say enough. Proper treatment protocols that are integrated and comprehensive addressing both the mental health and addiction components must be the norm. Aftercare must involve continued therapy and medication monitoring (if medication is prescribed).

    From a 7/2014 article from The Huffington Post regarding Robin Williams recently checking into rehab:

    "It's [addiction] -- not caused by anything, it's just there," he said in a 2006 interview [with Diane Sawyer]. "It waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, 'It's fine now, I'm OK.' Then, the next thing you know, it's not OK. Then you realize, 'Where am I? I didn't realize I was in Cleveland.'"

    He admitted he once thought he could handle addiction on his own.

    "But you can't. That's the bottom line," he said. "You really think you can, then you realize, I need help, and that's the word ... It's hard admitting it, then once you've done that, it's real easy."

    Curious to me is that Robin Williams doesn't mention his well-documented struggle with bi-polar disorder and depression as the underlying cause of his addiction. From everything that I have learned about co-occurring disorders, mental illness, and addiction, I am praying that we as a nation finally begin to understand that with 70% of addicts suffering from mental illness: THERE IS A CAUSE TO THEIR ADDICTION, IT IS CAUSED BY UNDERLYING MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES! When people with COD go to rehab, unfortunately their mental health needs are often not met making long term success virtually impossible. Please, please, please let's start making some real changes to the treatment protocols, as well as early intervention at the first sign of behaviors outside the norm (before substance use even begins)!

    I also have to say that the other thought that popped into my head was: "Well har, things just got a heck of a lot more interesting up there, hope you guys are having fun!"


  5. Great post and insight on mental illness and depression. Totally understand when people reach the end and despite all their efforts can not overcome all the feelings of depression, self-worth and other issues. He is my profile photo.

  6. Have I told you that "I love you" lately? If not, I LOVE YOU!!!


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