Brilliance Darkened: Have We Learned from Robin Williams?

Robin WilliamsThe world recently lost a brilliant entertainer. A family lost someone they loved and cherished. A lot has been said and written about the tragic death of Robin Williams. In the days following his death, there was speculation about his sobriety and talk about his struggle with depression. It was revealed that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. People struggled to make sense of something that will probably never truly make sense. But how often does suicide make sense? As this article was being written, a 12-year-old girl took her own life at school in Xenia, Ohio. Another tragedy with far more questions than answers.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), major depression is one of the most common mental health issues in the United States. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) reports suicide takes the lives of nearly 40,000 Americans every year and that many who attempt suicide never seek professional care. Although substance abuse is a risk factor for suicide, SAVE indicates the strongest risk factor for suicide is depression.

People have wondered how someone who was so brilliant an entertainer could experience the darkness that was Robin Williams’ depression. It has been said that if there were two or more people in a room with Williams, it was an audience. I can’t help but wonder who he was when he wasn’t entertaining; did Williams have the same question about himself?

I also feel the need to pose the question about the role the stigma surrounding mental health issues played. As I listened to various descriptions regarding Williams’ death, I noticed a shift in the narrative. Prior to the Parkinson’s piece being revealed, there was a lot of focus on whether Williams’ sobriety was intact. Once the Parkinson’s piece was revealed, as well as his widow’s conviction that her husband was indeed sober, the focus was on Parkinson’s. I wanted to scream, “WHY AREN’T WE TALKING ABOUT DEPRESSION? WHY AREN’T WE TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH?”

Seriously, why aren’t we?

Certainly, media footage exists of Williams talking and even joking about his struggles. But was his humor masking shame? I don’t know. Probably only he knew. There have been numerous tragedies directly related to mental health, but although we seem to knock on the door, we never seem to walk through and talk about it—not for very long, anyway. In regards to the Ohio tragedy, the superintendent made the decision to hold classes as usual the day following the girl’s death, stating, “We’re going to have as normal a day as possible.” Though I believe this superintendent made the best decision he could under very difficult circumstances and had the students’ best interests at heart, I’m curious as to what “normal’ looks like on any given day, and that curiosity is tenfold on the day after a classmate commits suicide on campus. Hopefully, dialogue is being started and encouraged and stigma around mental health is taking a backseat.

The bottom line is this: mental health issues are OK to talk about. It’s OK to struggle—we all struggle. Suicide often comes as a total shock because the person who was hurting was too afraid to reach out. Too afraid of what his or her loved ones, coworkers, and acquaintances would think.

Yes, shame can be a powerful silencer. The stigma surrounding depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc., was socially constructed, and this social construction, maintained by society, keeps us quiet.

Here’s a thought: how about we deconstruct it? Why can’t we talk about mental “illness” in terms of mental HEALTH—the steps we can take to be mentally healthy on good days, bad days, and really, really bad days or seasons of our lives? The first step consists of reaching out. Take that brave step. Reach out. Talk about it. And then keep talking about it.

Mental health challenges, whether expressed by addiction or mood issues or voices, need to be freed from the stigma that keeps us from talking about them. It’s a matter of life or death.

Though I didn’t personally know Robin Williams, he is woven into my life story. He portrayed two movie roles that influenced me to become a therapist—a compassionate and nonpathologizing therapist. I will miss his brilliance. This blog post is dedicated to Robin, his family, and to all those who have lost a loved one to suicide.

If you are struggling, please reach out; please talk about it. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and you will be connected to a skilled, trained crisis center in your area. Don’t let your own special brilliance be darkened forever.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deanna Daniels, LMFT, therapist in Huntington Beach, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Allisyn

    Allisyn

    October 24th, 2014 at 10:42 AM

    I don’t know if his death made an impact in that there are still htose who feel ashamed of talking about suicide and feeling suicidal but what I do think that it has done is to open up the conversation and has made more of us who have not felt that way more aware of the struggles that others in our lives could be facing. I am not saying that we will automatically know when someone is hurting without being told but I think that it has legitimately caused us to at leats open our eyes to the possibility that this could be happening to someone that we love and that we may need to pay more attentiion to the struggles with which they are dealing.

  • Elka

    Elka

    October 24th, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    Personally I think that I was so stunned to learn of his death just because of how brilliantly comedic he as and how he never seemed to be down or depressed.

    For me that as a HUGE life lesson- it showed me that even the saddest people can often mask that pain and while looking so happy and frenetic on the outside they could be going through something so horrible inside. It was a sad day indeed to learn of his death but I think that if there is something positive that can be taken away from it then this will not be a death in vain.

  • toni b.

    toni b.

    October 25th, 2014 at 10:07 AM

    We learned just how difficult and painful it can be to lose a brilliant soul to something so senseless, something so wholly preventable, and yet to irresistible for the one in pain.

  • Jerica

    Jerica

    October 25th, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    It is hard for me to even think about what suicide has done to this family as I recall my own brush with almost death and how it has impacetd me and my own famiy.

    There was a time when I felt so lost, so completely out of control that this felt like the only choice that I had to make all of that go away. I am so thankful that I have emerged from that dark place for I know the pain that it is to be there and for your family to watch you deal with that too.

    I hope that as some point they can find some peace and understanding with his decision as it is readily apparent that he was in a terrible place in his life for a very long time and this must have been his last resort to end that pain.

  • patience

    patience

    October 26th, 2014 at 8:47 AM

    I do think that the conversations are out there, but I also think that more has to be done to get that same conversation into the rigth circles. Yes there are people talking, but do you ever get the feeling that it is the same old group of people talking and they are the same ones who have always cared about the issue? the time is now when we have to expand that conversation to include other groups of people for who this is a new topic and get them to see how having this talk can be relevant to their own lives, and that this is not just something that can happen to other people… it can happen in your life too.

  • Helen

    Helen

    October 27th, 2014 at 10:11 AM

    I think that if the Williams family saw this they would be so happy to know that you had inspired on such a profound level by the roles that he tackled throughout his stellar professional career!

  • Bobbi

    Bobbi

    October 28th, 2014 at 3:56 AM

    I cannot even begin to imagine the darkness and the monsters that plague a person like this who is clearly so talented and yet never quite believe that in themselves. It must be so horrible to go through life knowing that there are all of these people who expect you to be one way and yet on the inside you are feeling something so drastically different. No one wants to lead a double life and I am sure that for a very long time that is exactly what he felt that he had to do. You can only hide that pain for so long.

  • Deanna

    Deanna

    October 28th, 2014 at 9:25 AM

    Thank you all for the positive feedback!

  • freebenn

    freebenn

    October 28th, 2014 at 1:50 PM

    I always find it interesting that the latest medical hysteria causes a public uproar over fewer than ten people dying from it, yet mental health issues that kill thousands we can’t talk about because then the talking heads might decide they are I’ll and they’d be forced to pay attention to it. You article was awesome. I have survived several attempts….

  • Katie Cashin Therapy

    Katie Cashin Therapy

    October 29th, 2014 at 7:15 AM

    Deanna, Thank you for continuing to raise these important questions. Once the story fades from the media it’s easy to let the conversation die down as well. Depression is often conceptualized as a monster or demon that people have to fight against for their entire lives. The flip side of this painful fight is that it motivates people into incredibly productive roles (actors, politicians, activists, artists, etc…) but the external validation and success does not mean the fight is ever over for them. They are just as vulnerable as they were before all of the accolades and attention. Mental illness- and specifically depression- doesn’t care. For this reason, I think you’re exactly right: we need to have a very open conversation about mental health and illness. Again, thank you for writing.

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