Robin Williams and Depression

News came today of the premature passing of acting genius, Robin Williams. Many who’ve been entertained and even mesmerised by his stunning artistic skills will mourn his death. And no doubt his family are distraught.

It’s no secret that Williams suffered from severe depression. Unfortunately, it seems to have played a significant role in his early death.

Depression is a sinister illness. It is not a character flaw. No one wills depression on themselves anymore than anyone wills a disability on themselves. It’s easy for those of us who don’t suffer clinical depression not to grasp just how awful and debilitating depression can be. Its invisibility and lack of external physical symptoms, however, make it no less an illness.

Depression lies to those who suffer from it. As humans, our feelings are our natural innate emotional responses to external influences. They are hard to control, because they are reflex responses.

For those of us who don’t suffer clinical depression, our feelings work with normal reflexes and help us adapt appropriately to circumstances. We feel happy in favourable circumstances, and angry in unjust circumstances. We feel sad at bad news, which is a normal kind of depression. But we also tend to feel better when things change or time passes. We bruise normally, and we heal normally.

Yet for those of us who do suffer clinical depression, the bruising runs deeper, and it doesn’t heal normally. The feelings fall out of alignment with reality and don’t respond positively when things change. This means the feelings actually begin lying to us about how things really are. Usually this produces a profound bleakness, but sometimes it can be an undue euphoria. In either case, since feelings are emotional reflexes, one can’t simply snap out of it. And so the vicious cycle continues.

This makes life very difficult, and often things appear very dark. Trying to function in the midst of depression is like trying to run uphill on blistered feet while pulling a fridge behind you. Others can’t see the blisters or the fridge, so things probably appear normal to them. But the weight of depression is still very much there.

Those of us who don’t suffer depression need to understand better that depression is neither a sin nor a fault. And nor is it a fake illness. Its invisibility makes it no less real.

Depression is an illness that requires treatment, patience, compassion, and care. Those who suffer don’t always need to have their problems solved. Most of the time they just need to be heard, understood, and encouraged. They need to know that things are not hopeless. That they do have options. That they are appreciated and valued for the person they are now, and not just the person they are when not depressed. That although things can fluctuate, and depression may well come again, there are still benefits in persevering and seeking help. That they are not alone. That you will sit with them through the darkness.

In calling us to love our neighbour as ourselves, Jesus urges us to focus on people as people. To bear each other’s burdens, as he bore ours. To go the extra mile, even as he went from heaven to hell. To treat the ill as we would treat him. To seek to serve rather than seek to be served. To be light and life in the midst of darkness and death.

There are no easy cures or answers to depression. If only those of us who suffered could simply flip a switch and turn it off! Alas, that’s not how reality is. Feelings lie to those of us who suffer depression. Those of us who don’t suffer shouldn’t believe the lie that ‘it can’t be that bad’.

Let’s all be real about depression.

Robin Williams’ death is a tragic reminder of just how awful this illness is. Hopefully his passing brings greater awareness and understanding. Depression is just one of those things that makes us long for the age to come. In the meantime, let’s be Christlike to those in need.

Vale Robin Williams.

10 thoughts on “Robin Williams and Depression

  1. There has been a tremendous amount of raving on the radio this morning about what a terrible tragedy this is. And it is a tragedy. But a far worse tragedy is being perpetrated in the Middle East, with Christians being massacred in vast numbers. I think that we are getting things a bit out of proportion. Can anyone deny that this is a fallen world?

    • I hear what you’re saying, Alan. But every single life is sacred, and every single life cut short is a tragedy to be mourned. No one is going to send in the troops over Robin Williams’ death, but many of us suffer or know someone who suffers from depression, as Williams did. To pass over the issue because of the horror occurring in the Middle East right now would be callous. Let’s not denigrate any loss of life. But let’s also hope that action is taken to stop the mass murder occurring in Syria and Iraq right now. The situation is rather desperate. I hope it doesn’t get crowded out of our awareness.

    • Alan – You are right. Both Robin Williams and the Middle East are tragedies, and both show loud and clear that this is a fallen world. Prayer is more than welcome for both.

      But I respond to each differently because they’re not in the exact same category: one is specific, known and named; the other is less specific, abstract in the mathematical sense, and the people unknown, even if named.

      Robin Williams’ productions have meant a lot to me and to many of us, have spoken to many of us, have encouraged and amused many of us, and have broken many of our hearts. His severe depression breaks the hearts of those of us who have seen depression in those we love or ourselves, and those of us who have known people who have committed suicide. Robin Williams was a wonderful actor, from the comedy show “Mork and Mindy,” to the husband/father in the 1994 “Homicide” tragic episode ‘Bop Gun’, to his roles in a broad range of many movies, including “Hook,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “Aladdin.”

      The tragedy in the Middle East is terrifying and more profound. Christians (and others) are being massacred in vast numbers. The stories of the choices of either fleeing or being beheaded, or imprisoned at the top of a mountain, unable to get food or water and dying, are horrors. The marking of the houses for expelling/executing the owners/inhabitants mocks the lamb’s blood of Passover, whether or not that was intended. Learning the histories of these places increases the tragedy. But it’s still abstract, not specific.

      For me, the difference is that Robin Williams is a single person, whose work I have loved for a long time. The Middle East is horrifying, but not knowing the specific people or places personally is a buffer.

      The focus on Robin Williams’ death will be intense, but will lessen after grieving with friends who loved his work, and watching some of his films. We may grieve when we think of him, but we have not known him personally; our grief will focus on his overwhelming depression, and on his art and the loss of more that was coming. We will have the opportunity to continue to see the work already produced.

      The Middle East will continue to be front and center of the news, and it might even whisper in our ears while we grieve Williams’ death. And despite the abstract facet, despite the buffer, it will continue to drive us to our knees.

  2. Thank you George. And in reference to all that is broken in the world today, for some the overwhelming awareness of this brokenness itself can be a trigger for personal depression.

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  4. It’s funny how sad it is. You feel as if all that manic funniness was sprinting a whole life long to flee that black dog. Then age creeps up, he slows down, and the dog wins. Another broken soul succumbs. Whether it’s the whole middle east, or just one person’s suicide, it’s the same tragedy, not in quantity, but in quality.

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  6. This negative media and comments surrounding Robin Williams death is saddening- stories have shocked me on how narrow minded and judgmental people are. That is why I never say my son committed suicide.. I say he died by suicide or from suicide.. and yes the cause was depression. Like cancer is an illness and disease so is depression. An believe me suffering from MDD since my son’s death has taught me so much appreciation for his silent suffering…. Break the Stigma! You Break the Silence!

    • Thank you for your comment, Bronwyn. I’m so sorry to read that you’ve experienced that kind of negativity and judgmentalism. It’s not right. I appreciate you being forthcoming about this.

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