Robin Williams died yesterday at the age of 63, apparently taking his own life after dealing with long-term serious depression. This was heartbreaking news for many people, as Williams’ career was built on bringing happiness and laughter to audiences. He was Mork, he was the Genie, he was Mrs. Doubtfire, and he was loved. As could be expected, some folks were annoyed, if not flat-out disgusted, by the outpouring of grief, wondering why a celebrity’s passing was more worthy of mourning than some average Jane. Still others turned up their noses at Williams, sneering at his cowardice and selfishness, which is pretty typical when someone commits suicide.
Ok, yes, some people are absolutely more upset about Williams’ passing than they would be about someone who’d led a more ordinary life, but it wasn’t about him being famous, it was about the gifts he continually gave to the world. Laughter is a treasure, and Williams gave more than his fair share. His work made the world a more enjoyable place to be, and for that to be snuffed out is truly tragic. People were mourning not the man, per se, but rather what he created. I think we can agree that’s a bit different than obsessing over someone who’s known for being known.
Another reason why Williams’ death hits so hard is because of the apparent proof it provides that depression always wins. When you’re struggling with depression, it can be nearly impossible to believe things will ever not suck. Depression lies, and it knows exactly which lies to tell because it lives inside your head and knows every last thing you hate and fear, and it uses them to trick you. It makes hopelessness seem logical, and in that state, suicide can be a very seductive idea. Everything just stops. The fighting stops, the hurting stops, the pointlessness stops. What’s the point of living, after all, if every day is just this empty void? Depression can do many things – make you sad or angry, but I think what it does worst is make you feel nothing. You’re like a ghost in your own life, not really able to touch anything or anyone. So, yeah, not wanting to deal with that anymore can seem like a really fantastic idea, and sometimes you have to convince yourself that it’s not a good plan, whether you actually believe that or not. It’s hard. If you’ve never been there, you can’t really imagine how hard it can be to just agree to live another day.
And then you see someone like Robin Williams – successful, loved, wealthy, famous, talented – and he couldn’t do it. He had all the possible resources in the world at his disposal and everything to live for, and he couldn’t do it. He tried to come up with a reason to keep living and he couldn’t. And if he can’t do it, if a man like that can’t do it, well…what hope does an ordinary person have? These are the thoughts that someone coping with serious depression and suicidal thoughts can have when they see something like Williams’ suicide.
So slinging around words like “cowardly” and “selfish” isn’t just not helping, it’s adding ammo to depression’s arsenal. Calling someone a coward isn’t going to make them snap out of their depression and suddenly never think about suicide again. Saying that suicide is selfish means little when you’re convinced that no-one would care if you suddenly winked out of existence. I understand if you find suicide abhorrent, but if you really want to stop people from doing it, then reach out with empathy and kindness. Don’t look down from your place of secure mental health at those who would consider taking their own lives, help raise them up so they can join you. Try to understand the struggles that people with mental health issues go through, and do what you can to increase awareness. If you don’t, if you’d rather just sneer and turn away and be smug in your certainty that you know what’s right, then I think it’s pretty clear that you’re the one who’s being cowardly and selfish.