The recent and tragic passing of Robin Williams has spawned a flurry of tributes and analyses, and many of these focus on the issue of mental health. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s unfortunate that it takes the death of a beloved actor to focus the public’s ephemeral attention on an ongoing problem. At the same time, it’s not like the issue has been unknown or has been being ignored all this time; my very first encounter with the issue of depression came from the classic poem:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
– Edwin Arlington Robinson
When I read this poem for the first time (probably around 9th grade, which would have been 1964) I thought, “How could someone so rich and powerful and enviable do that?” Then I lived with depression for 30 years. Not mine, but someone else’s, and I learned that this is not something that is tied to external circumstances, and it’s not just something you “get over.” No matter how hard some people work, no matter how much therapy, no matter how many meds, that blackness just doesn’t go away. You can’t regrow a leg by thinking about it, you don’t make ALS disappear just because you want it to, and depression is just the same. And sometimes it just hurts too badly to keep going.
In 1967, Dave Berg wrote “The Lighter Side of the Mating Game” for MAD magazine. He had his finger on the pulse of the insecure comedian:
A much darker, but no less accurate summation was created by Nicholas Gurewitch, the creator of the Perry Bible Fellowship:
In a recent ABC News article, Dr. Rami Kaminski, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University School of Medicine was quoted as saying, “The reason so many comedians are at risk for mental illness is because being funny is not the same thing as being happy.” He also said he believes many comedians mine humor as a way to escape depression and anxiety.
Several articles and blogs which appeared pursuant to Williams’ death are worth reading:
The Death of Robin Williams, And What Suicide Isn’t – Elizabeth Hawksworth
Robin Williams’s death: a reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish – Dean Burnett at The Guardian
David Wong, over at Cracked.com, wrote a savagely honest article about the relationship between comedy and internal suffering (he’s a humorist himself, and speaks from experience, although this is obviously only one scenario, and doesn’t apply to all cases):
- At an early age, you start hating yourself. Often it’s because you were abused, or just grew up in a broken home, or were rejected socially, or maybe you were just weird or fat or … whatever. You’re not like the other kids, the other kids don’t seem to like you, and you can usually detect that by age 5 or so.
- At some point, usually at a very young age, you did something that got a laugh from the room. You made a joke or fell down or farted, and you realized for the first time that you could get a positive reaction that way. Not genuine love or affection, mind you, just a reaction — one that is a step up from hatred and a thousand steps up from invisibility. One you could control.
- You soon learned that being funny builds a perfect, impenetrable wall around you — a buffer that keeps anyone from getting too close and realizing how much you suck. The more you hate yourself, the stronger you need to make the barrier and the further you have to push people away. In other words, the better you have to be at comedy.
- In your formative years, you wind up creating a second, false you — a clown that can go out and represent you, outside the barrier. The clown is always joking, always “on,” always drawing all of the attention in order to prevent anyone from poking away at the barrier and finding the real person behind it. The clown is the life of the party, the classroom joker, the guy up on stage — as different from the “real” you as possible. Again, the goal is to create distance.
You do it because if people hate the clown, who cares? That’s not the real you. So you’re protected.
The full article is rather coarse so I don’t quote most of it here, but if you’re not offended by such things, you can visit the source.
For me, the takeaway from all of this is that much more needs to be done in the area of treating mental illness. When people get sick, they visit a doctor without hesitation. But let a person suffer from depression, and it’s usually hidden away in the closet and discussed in hushed whispers using euphemisms like “chemical imbalance.” Those who suffer usually manage to function in society, but are rarely free of judgment; most often heard from others who have no clue are things like “happiness is a choice, just snap out of it.” This and about 100 other platitudes, things that are never helpful to say to someone with depression, can be found at PsychCentral.
The other important point is that there is nothing that you can do for a friend or loved one who suffers from the blackness. Depression is still poorly understood, and there is no “cure.” The same source above provides a list of things that can be done, but this list – while accurate – is highly clinical and omits the two most important things you can do: Love and accept. People with depression need a community of friends who can provide support and acceptance without judgment. Even this won’t make the blackness go away, but it’s the best thing friends and family can offer.
In conclusion, two beautiful tributes to the life of Robin Williams:
The Old Wolf has spoken.