Robin Williams and Depression in Hollywood and Beyond

Well, it seems pretty impossible not to talk about this on a blog dedicated to mental illness, advocacy, and film. 



I understand: by this point you've been inundated with countless reflections and remembrances of Robin Williams plastered across every social media platform available. Of course! He was an electric, magnetic personality with a vast catalogue of work decorating his lengthy career. If you've been to the movies within the past 20 years or have access to basic cable, then you've seen his work, probably multiple times over. Hell, my five-year-old daughter knows who he is (granted, she thinks he's blue and sprang from a bottle, but it counts). His death would have had an impact regardless of when it happened, but for his untimely end to come as a result of suicide (and that suicide the result of a battle with severe depression), well — it's hard for us to reconcile how someone who seemed to be the very opposite of unhappiness could succumb to it. 


But then, it's not so hard to reconcile. There are scores of troubled, tears-of-a-clown performers throughout Hollywood history, some of whom we've lost, untold numbers of whom are still struggling. This doesn't necessarily lessen the shock when it happens, but it does make it more difficult to understand why we as a society seem hell-bent on remaining ignorant about the basics of mental illness.


You only have to look as far as the comments on some of those aforementioned social media posts to find it: the accusations of selfishness, the assumptions of weakness, the near outrage at how someone with fame and fortune could have the gall to be depressed. As journalist Sarah Churchwell observes, these comments "are symptomatic not only of a profound misunderstanding about the nature of mental illness, which does not arise from external causes, but also of our society's crazy faith in anyone finding salvation in money or fame."


Most confusing about these misinformed opinions is that there seem to be even more people coming forward to share their own personal battles with mental illness, specifically depression. For every "if only he hadn't been so selfish," I've seen five more "I've struggled with this too"s. Why, then, if so many of us have felt the weight of depression, do so many of us continue to perpetuate misinformation and stigma? Well, I'd be willing to bet that the answer lies within the question: if you're going to be called crazy or selfish, isn't it smarter to ignore (or at least downplay) the problem? They can't accuse you of being weak if you don't show them the weakness. 


In fact, Williams himself didn't seem to talk publicly about depression to any great lengths. There are instances of him mentioning dark times and even a quote or two about contemplating suicide (usually bookended with a joke), but he was not willing to put his star power behind raising awareness for the illness, as some of his Hollywood counterparts have done. This is in no way a criticism; besides what must be the overwhelming pressure for a celebrity to maintain a "normal" public persona, depression is, of course, intensely personal. Making it public is bringing the monster out of the closet, parading around the most vulnerable pieces of yourself for everyone to see (…and judge).  Not only is that terrifying, but bringing the personal into the public could very well backfire and feed the self-loathing and insecurity that depression loves so well.


All speculation aside, the fact remains that Williams struggled long and hard against mental illness. He had recently gone to rehab in an attempt to keep the depression at bay, but his friends could see that the darkness had returned. When he sat alone in his room this past Sunday evening, he wasn't a comedian or Academy award-winning actor, he was a human being battling depression — like I am, like you might be, like so many we love are. 


Depression isn't easy to understand. It's confusing and hurtful for those who suffer from it, and for everyone around them. That makes it all the more urgent for us to talk about it, to share our experiences, and to crush the idea that it's selfish or imaginary or easily defeated. Depression feeds on misinformation. It thrives on stigma. It hunts down those who think they are immune. Depression helps you turn all that negativity inward, until you believe every last, toxic, destructive word.


Combing through even more social media noise about Williams and his death yesterday, I came across a comment from my friend Dan Stryker that stopped me in my tracks: "When you're having a terrible asthma attack you might think, 'What did I do to deserve this?' But the insidious thing about depression is that when you're in its grip, you think, 'I deserve this.'"


That quote articulated something about my depression that I–in all of my exhaustive analysis of it–had missed. This was basically the root of my experience, and it took someone thousands of miles away to point it out to me. Reading those words took a weight off of me I didn't realize was still there. 


What if Robin Williams had been able to feel that weight disappear? What if the millions of people still living with depression could feel it? We owe it to them to keep talking. We owe it to them to keep trying. 


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