The overnight news that actor and comedian Robin Williams had been found dead at his California home, after what is suspected to have been suicide, has shocked even those in the profession who knew him. He was just 63 years old. For someone who was, as the sometimes over-used phrase goes, larger than life, the news seems yet more inexplicable. But Williams’ life was not without its problems.
He had suffered for some time with depression, and had also battled drink and drugs. But the key here is not the drink, nor the drugs, but the condition that he, and so many others, have to live with, and about which too little is understood, and even less is done. Depression does not go away merely by achieving fame and not having to worry about paying the next round of bills.
Depression cannot be assuaged by larger paycheques. It cannot be shooed away by someone ordering the sufferer to “pull yourself together”, and certainly not by those who choose to scold those affected by suggesting that they are “putting it on” or merely seeking attention. It does not respond to a group of friends laughing and joking, and urging the removal of that sad face.
And, what makes matters so much worse, we know that depression is a mental health issue, and for too many people, as soon as the phrase “mental health” is uttered, it is all too scary to want to understand. But understand we must: it is a health issue, it affects people of all ages, in all manner of work, rich and poor, male and female, and for some it can be all-consuming.
He might have enjoyed this unintended juxtaposition
Many will look at the record of Robin Williams’ performances, on film, TV, and stage, and see only the “funniest man alive”, as he was once described. But this does not tell us the whole story. Depression can bring elation in its high points. But the swinging back of the pendulum brings the reverse. The pleasure Williams brought to millions may have had a personal price.
After his last spell in rehab, Williams was asked if he felt happier. The reply is telling: “I think so. And not afraid to be unhappy. That’s OK too. And then you can be like, all is good. And that is the thing, that is the gift”. No longer being afraid to be unhappy: that was, to him, an achievement. But even after that, the depression did not go away. For those who suffer the condition, it never does.
As Barack Obama said in his tribute, “Williams arrived in our lives as an alien - but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most - from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalised on our own streets”. If only he had found a little inner peace of his own.
Robin McLaurin Williams, born July 21, 1951, died August 11, 2014.