Thoughts on Robin Williams, Mental Health, and Suicide

*Obvious trigger warning for suicide and depression.*

Along with just about everyone else, I am deeply saddened by the death of Robin Williams. He has been a presence throughout most of our lives. I’ve been a fan since his “Mork and Mindy” days and my own children grew up watching his movies too.

When I was in third grade, I was a latchkey kid and I have a very vivid memory of being locked out of the house after forgetting my key, standing in the pouring rain and not knowing what to do. I was wearing a purple shirt with a glittery iron-on of Mork’s catchphrase, “Nanu nanu.” My oldest daughter would watch “Fern Gully” over and over and my son couldn’t get enough of “Aladdin.” As a family, we watched “Mrs. Doubtfire” many times and, like Robin Williams, I would use silly voices and odd accents to make my children laugh. When I was in labor with my youngest child, I watched a rerun of Conan O’Brien’s show because Robin Williams was a guest. It hurt to laugh during contractions but I needed the distraction. As a single mom, I was all on my own in that hospital room but Robin Williams got me through it. He was a golden thread woven through the fabric of my entire life. His movies were my go-to choices when I needed cheering up.

In an odd twist, a man who was known for bringing so many laughs to so many people around the world was filled with sadness inside. The type of sadness that comes from severe depression is not the kind that can be broken with funny movies or a weekend getaway or some retail therapy. It is a raging vortex that will suck you in and not let go, no matter how vehemently you beg for mercy. When you are in its grasp, suicide often seems like the only means of release.

I can only assume, based on my own experiences, that this is the level of depression that Robin Williams was battling. I’ve been there many times and, in 2006, it almost killed me. I nearly died from a suicide attempt, one of just many but definitely the worst. I woke up a few days later, alone in a hospital room. I had no one to turn to when I got out. Once you’ve outed yourself as someone with depression, people feel uncomfortable around you. After you’ve survived a suicide attempt, they treat you differently. You are crazy, you are weird, and they don’t know what to say so they say nothing.

After my suicide attempt and after losing many of my friends, I dropped out completely. I gave up on my usual interests, I gave up on socializing…I even started working from home. There were many times that I kicked myself for not taking enough pills. I wish I could say that I woke up in that hospital room glad to be alive but that’s not true. I was mad that I had failed. It took me a few years to get to a point where I could appreciate surviving. Fortunately, I do have friends now that I can trust and that will be there if I need them. Now I know that if I find the energy and the courage to reach out, a hand will be there reaching back for me.

If you struggle with depression, you probably already know that you are not alone even though it feels like it. You know people will tell you to just cheer up. They’ll tell you to go for a walk, take a bubble bath, go to the bar with them, do whatever you need to do to just be happy. Just. Be. Happy. As if it is that easy, as if depression is just a choice that you made. Please don’t let them sway you from reaching out. People who say things like that simply don’t understand how depression works. Find someone who does know. As hard as it may be, connect with people who are also living with depression. I know it’s hard to do because depression won’t even let you get off the couch but please try, even if it’s just finding the energy to send a quick “I need help” text to a trusted friend or family member. Message me. If I can’t talk you through it, I will find someone who can. There are hotlines and Internet chat services available. Don’t let depression tell you that you are bothering people or burdening them by asking for help.

For those of you reading this who don’t understand depression, please set aside some time to read about it. Odds are that someone you know is living with it and you could find yourself in a position to help them. Learn the signs and be proactive by checking in with people, especially if you’re noticing that they seem less active than usual or withdrawn. However, keep in mind that people living with depression are very good at hiding it. Robin Williams is a perfect example of this. He is one of the funniest people the world has ever known and yet he was still struggling.

Fortunately, there is some good coming from his death. People are talking about depression and addiction. They are opening up and they are listening and this is a good thing. Only by doing so can we lift the stigma enough so that people can have the freedom to seek help.

For information on suicide, please visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ and if you need immediate help, call 911 or call 1-800-273-8255 (273-TALK) in the United States. Outside of the U.S., check http://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres for a hotline number for your area.

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