So many laughs and images are conjured in my mind when I think of Robin Williams. Whether he was shouting “Good Morning Vietnam” or giving a whole new image to cross dressing as Ms. Doubtfire, Robin Williams brought heart and soul to the roles he played. His iconic face is an image that rests somewhere in most people’s minds, and his performances have moved many of us to both tears of laughter and loss. My favorite character of his was probably one of his more serious roles, as psychologist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In Hollywood films it is unusual to see the role of a therapist played with authenticity. As I am a Therapist, that may have been the reason that I enjoyed his performance in that film so much. Possibly it was also his ability to bring levity to a serious topic that etched Good Will Hunting in my mind. Well once again this week Robin Williams has touched us on a deep level by bringing our attention to a very serious issue through the tragedy of his untimely death. It has been reported that he died from suicide, and the news has sent shock waves far and wide. Many of us are struck by the tragedy and loss of this great performer, while also feeling the gratitude for the moments of joy and laughter he brought to us.
It was well known that Robin Williams suffered from depression and struggled with addictive behaviours for much of his life. His death again brings awareness to how depression can be a silent killer. I have worked with many depressed individuals through the years and it has always struck me how intelligent, creative and sensitive these individual are. Depression is not a character flaw; rather, it is a complex mental illness that affects people on many levels. Sensitive people are more prone to depression and anxiety. Many people who suffer from depression cope by using substances to blunt the pain, and this of course leads to a whole new set of complications. Another coping mechanism often used by bright and creative people struggling with depression is humour. Sometimes the most powerful humour is the laugh that has an edge in it. Humour can be the best medicine in many ways, but it is not a substitute for medication and therapy when it comes to depression.
Depression distorts reality. In the Mental Health field we are still uncovering new information regarding depression all of the time. Why this “black dog” strikes many, bypasses others and at times ends in suicide and death for some, remains a bit of a mystery. The good news is that there is evolving science which is making it easier to understand and treat depression. Depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness and a loss of engagement in one’s own life. We all have challenges to face in life – we need these challenges and moments of futility to develop an exceptional life. But when even the small tasks feel like insurmountable obstacles, and the absence of pleasure and dominance of emotional pain takes over, situational depression can become a full-fledged clinical depression. When we get stuck and cannot feel any movement in our lives, we need assistance to get things going again.
The brain is a complex organ and we are learning more about it every day. Research indicates that the brain has less volume in certain areas during a clinical depression, but that it often returns to normal after treatment. There are many chemicals involved in depression affecting both the inside and the outside of the nerve cells; so depression is not just in ‘the mind’, but actually in the brain and experienced on a very physical level. Genetics and life stressors appear to play a big part in the cause of depression as well. All of these elements contribute to distorted thoughts of the future and feelings of hopelessness.
Some people suffering from depression may withdraw from the world while some may become great actors, pretending that everything is fine and using their humour. The distraction of laughter can be used to keep the pain at bay and to conceal the level of distress from those around them. In fact Robin Williams had joked about suicide in past interviews, and certainly knew how to deflect our view from his pain. Many depressed people become some of the best actors in our lives, lulling us into thinking that everything is ok with them. In some ways depression often creates actors, whether they be famous of not. Again, we cannot judge the book by the cover.
Remember that funny may not always be fun, and that humour and pain can be very closely linked. Sometimes those who are laughing the loudest are suffering the most. If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression remember that people do recover, and there are many effective treatments. It is important to get assistance; the medical system and therapeutic community are increasingly responsive to those suffering from mental illness. It is important to consult with your doctor, and find a good therapist who understands how to get things unstuck and movement happening again.
As a therapist I have been so fortunate to see many individuals overcome depression and go on to flourish and enjoy their exceptional lives. It is time for us to get over the stigma associated with depression, counselling and the treatment of mental health issues. With that, I bid a sad and fond farewell to a man who certainly made me laugh, and hope that his tragic death can inspire others to reach out through the tears and laughter, as we are here to help you.