The sad death of Robin Williams has got us talking about mental health issues – something we need to do more, says Miles Salter
The stunning, and deeply sad news, that emerged on Monday that Robin Williams has died, apparently by suicide, has shocked many people.
From the outside, Williams seemed like a happy-go-lucky man, full of energy and charisma. His quick wit, ability to imitate others, and way with words made him one of Hollywood’s most famous and lauded leading men.
He has left behind a fantastic legacy: moments of comedy genius as a stand up and actor from Mork And Mindy to The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society (inspiring people to become teachers), Miss Doubtfire, Good Morning Vietnam and many more.
But the exterior masked a more complex personality. Williams was beset by personal concerns, including depression, addiction issues, and apparent concerns about his finances, having been embroiled in two costly divorce cases.
(I am very glad I am not, this week, in the shoes of his ex-wives. The divorces apparently cost Williams $20 million, contributing to his worries in recent months. They may have reason for reflection at the moment.)
If Williams’ death has done one good thing (and I write “one good thing” knowing how ironic that sounds, given that a fantastic talent has left this world in awful circumstances, his children devastated at what has happened) it is that, all week, people have been discussing mental health issues and the concerns that surround them.
The media has discussed how comics, in particular, can be prone to great highs and terrible lows. Family members have spoken about children or relatives who have, only recently, killed themselves.
The issue of how we stay balanced and healthy has been under the spotlight in the wake of Williams’ tragic departure.
What can we learn from all this? Firstly, that mental health is still widely misunderstood.
We don’t talk about it enough, or confront it enough. Like sex, death and money, it’s one of the subjects we find difficult to discuss openly and maturely.
The media outlets that made unfortunate comments about Williams death are sobering for their lack of understanding: a petition is being signed to sack American TV anchor Shep Smith who, stupidly (but probably not maliciously), labelled Williams a “coward” for his actions.
Personally, I suspect suicide probably takes huge courage.
Other areas of the media have shown a lack of respect in their coverage of the story: the brutal headline Hanged in one American paper is pretty shameful.
I did not want to see myself as somebody who was weak enough to “need help” – and this is a big part of the problem
Second, strong families matter. Williams had a lonely childhood and rarely saw his mother, an aspiring model and society aficionado who seems to have been too busy for her son.
Williams had a reservoir of darkness that followed him around, and it’s probably safe to assume it was rooted in his childhood.
When Decca Aitkenhead interviewed Williams for The Guardian in 2010, she wrote: “He seems gentle and kind – even tender – but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.”
If we’re going to create a healthy society, being present for our kids is one of the most important things we can do.
Thirdly, and most important, we have to build a society where it’s easier to help each other. In 2002, I lost a job that I had tried to make work. I was several months away from getting married and I felt the stigma of unemployment very deeply.
Talking to a therapist, he detected my depression and suggested I try St John’s Wort, a herbal remedy for people suffering from anxiety and depression.
I was mortified. I did not want to see myself as somebody who was weak enough to “need help” – and this is a big part of the problem. We’re so busy coping with life and trying to be strong (as Williams seemed to be) that we don’t allow ourselves the chance to admit despair, or darkness, or sadness.
It’s important to be real. Fake happiness doesn’t help if you feel overwhelmed.
And this is common: one in four of us will deal with this stuff at some point in our lives. If we’re going to help each other, we need to build structures that help people, when help is needed.
Mary Hamilton says that these structures are sadly lacking and I have no reason to argue with her analysis.
But let’s deconstruct the myth that we’re all coping, and start to be a bit more real about our weaknesses. Confronting the dark stuff, and being open about it, may mean less people feel to travel the same dark path that Robin Williams went down.
York Mind offer counselling support and a befriending service: call them on 01904 643364.