“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” Robin Williams
Robin Williams. Abraham Lincoln. Judy Garland. Demi Lovato. Rosie O’Donnell. Sir Winston Churchill. J.K. Rowling. Billy Joel. Princess Diana. Ah, the rich, the famous….and the depressed.
As news spread about Williams’ suicide on Monday, countless fans around the world couldn’t help but wonder why? Why would a comedic genius, who seemingly has it all, commit suicide? Depression does not discriminate. It affects people from all walks of life, ethnicities and party lines.
More than 350 million people suffer from depression globally and one in 10 Americans deal with the disease. So if you are surprised by that list of names above, don’t be. That list above could have actually been much, much longer. The fact is depression has nothing to do with what’s going on outside (fame, fortune, etc.) and everything to do with what is going on inside.
It is commonly said that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. There are thousands of neurotransmitters in the brain that transmit signals from one neuron to another. It is said that too much or too little of these endogenous chemicals can lead to depression. While this is true, let’s be honest. It is much deeper than that. Many other scenarios can trigger mood swings including loss of a loved one, stress, loneliness and certain medications.
Although more research has been done than ever before, there is still a lingering stigma associated with depression. Many are embarrassed to admit they suffer from the disease and it continues to be significantly misdiagnosed and untreated.
Why are people afraid to talk about it? My husband and I had a hard time conceiving. After several doctor visits and the use of fertility drugs, I finally gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in February 2000. Only, I wasn’t happy and suffered from post-partum depression.
Finally, I was holding the baby that I begged God for and I was depressed? How dare I feel this way? Why? It took me a long time to admit that I had a problem and thankfully it went away after a few months with the help of family and friends.
I can only imagine what was going through Robin Williams’ mind. It’s certainly not easy being in the public eye. The public has certain expectations and you feel an obligation to uphold that image, even if it’s not the real one. Take Williams, for example, here he is one of the most beloved comedians of all time. He made a living making people laugh. Can you imagine how hard it was for him to admit that he was suffering from severe depression? Perhaps, he felt it would hurt his career and his public image. Perhaps, he felt ashamed.
In a 1995 interview with the BBC, Princess Diana spoke openly about her bouts with depression. “When no one listens to you, or you feel no one’s listening to you, all sorts of things start to happen,” she said. “You have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help, but it’s the wrong help you’re asking for … I didn’t like myself; I was ashamed because I couldn’t cope with the pressures.”
According to WHO (World Health Organization), depression is the leading cause of disability globally. It is also a major killer, through suicide. The question then becomes not why someone as famous as Robin Williams would commit suicide but rather how we can learn from his death and what we can do about it. True, in life Williams made America laugh. But, in death, hopefully he will make us better understand the disease and know that it is not something to be ashamed of or feared. Hopefully, more and more people will know that they are not alone. Hopefully, more and more will seek help.
Williams sat down for an interview with James Lipton for an episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” in 2001. Lipton asked, “If heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”
To this, Williams responded, “There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at 5. It’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and one of your choosing. Or if heaven exists to know that there is laughter. Just to hear God go ‘two Jews walk into a bar.’”
His wife, Susan Schneider, had one request as she sked for privacy in dealing with her grief, “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”
My heart goes out to his family and friends. Thank you for the laughs, Robin. You will long be remembered. And by the way, heaven does exist. Only now, there is much more laughter.