Robin Williams And The Tragedy Of Depression


Last night, for the first time ever, I cried over a celebrity’s death. My tears had nothing to do with the loss of such an immense talent – although I have been a Robin Williams fan for decades – and everything to do with the fact that another life has been lost to mental illness.

I suspect that I am not alone. I suspect that right now, people all over the globe are relating to the drowning feeling of depression that drove Robin Williams to seek such a desperate escape. Several times since this tragic news broke, I have seen variations of one overriding question on my social media feeds: if a man with the financial resources of a celebrity could not find the help that he needed, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The truth is that while money can buy therapy, it does not buy the understanding of those around us. I started seeing my therapist four years ago, and although it has undoubtedly helped me, the benefits I have gained have been severely restricted by the stigmas and misconceptions that surround mental illness to this day. A number of conditions have to be met in order for therapy to truly work. The right therapist is one. Adequate support and understanding in your daily life is another.

It’s not to say that people don’t care – it’s just that many of them don’t understand. If I had a dollar for the number of times I’ve been told that depression is not a “real” illness, I’d had enough for an entire team of therapists.

I’ve written about the misconceptions surrounding depression before, but they are worth repeating, especially now that Robin Williams has put such a focus on it by taking his own life.

* When I am in the grip of depression, I cannot “snap out of it”. Asking someone to snap out of depression is like asking them to snap out of a heart attack.

* Depression is not to be equated with sadness. It cannot even be regarded as a severe form of sadness. Depression and sadness are two completely different things, in the same way that asthma and the common cold are two completely different things.

* Suicide is not a selfish, cowardly act. It is the act of someone who is desperate to get away from a terrible, desolate, frightening situation, and who sees no other escape route.

* Contrary to a popular Facebook meme, people with depression are not “focused on the past”, and they will not magically cure themselves by living in the present.

* Sometimes, for some people, the right medication can lead to dramatic improvements in quality of life, but it’s not for everybody. Someone who refuses medication is not being stubborn. They might be afraid, or they might have learned from experience that it doesn’t work for them.

* A person with depression is capable of smiling, laughing at jokes and having a good time with friends. If you see a picture of someone smiling, don’t say that they “can’t be that depressed”. Robin Williams himself is a perfect illustration of that.

This list is a drop in the bucket, but if we can shift peoples’ understanding on these few points, that will be a good start. If you suffer from depression, don’t be afraid to talk about it and ask for help. It’s really nothing to be ashamed of. If you know someone with depression, be there for them. One of the scariest things for a person with depression is the feeling of being alone in the world.

The death of Robin Williams is a great tragedy. It will be an even greater tragedy if we don’t learn something from it. If his death leads to greater awareness and understanding, and saves just one person from suicide – well, I think he would like that.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: BagoGames. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


  1. For some of us, medications amplify the depression and lead to thoughts of suicide.
    So there truly is no swift solution. Anxiety can make it a challenge to seek help. Not every person has readily available family or friend support. Or at least some of us feel that it’s too much of a burden to reach out.
    Then we live in a dark world, where help is not a possibility. Very sad, very scary.

    • That has been my experience with medication, and that is why I will not consider it as a possibility for myself. Also, I do understand the difficulty in reaching out for help. I have had depression since I was a teenager, and I only sought help after I turned 40, when I had also been living with PTSD for 20 years. Even now that I have a therapist, the thought of going to my appointments is often extremely overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.

      Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your perspective.

    • I so hear you, Anon! When I was at my worst, the only thing that stopped me from swallowing all the pills I fantasized would put me out of my misery, was the fact that I couldn’t muster the energy to get out of bed!! I was extremely lucky that someone cared enough to “tough love ” me into the therapy I needed. Since then I relapsed several times, but (luckily) never again that far into the pit that I couldn’t move. Finally, I checked myself into a Psychiatric Clinic for a solid month. That’s when things finally changed for me. I guess I’m lucky that I had the support of someone who loved me enough to get me the help I needed. I’m also lucky that I eventually found the right medication for me. It IS scary and some meds DO make you feel worse, but I’d really like to encourage you to keep trying until you find the right combination of therapy / support and meds (if necessary) to get out of that dark world. Trust me, there are many more of us “out here” that have been where you are than you can imagine!! I’m sending you love and strength!

      • Simona, as always, I commend your bravery in speaking so frankly about your experiences. Thank you for sharing, and for letting people know that there is hope.

  2. I totally agree, Kirsten! Thank you!

  3. Beautiful post, Kirsten. Thank you.

  4. So very sad. What a talented individual.

  5. Kirsten, I think I was one of the lucky ones. I struggled with depression most of my adult life as did my mom and as did her dad who was a minister.

    I remember sitting in a parking lot in St. Louis crying till my head hurt (not for attention, for I knew no one was around), but because I hurt so, so bad. I remember flushing my medication down the stool because I wanted to take it all, but something held me back. I like to think that something was a higher power.

    Even after I went back to church, the pain continued. There was always, always the feeling that I wasn’t good enough and that I really did not belong in this world. And no one understood. In fact, when I tried to explain it to my psychologist, he tried to tell me that he cared, that he understood, and then he had to go to his superiors because when I told him, “yes, because I pay you to care and understand,” he had no comeback.

    But there was a fall day back in the 70s when I was walking down the street kicking the leaves and thinking how wonderful the day was. Immediately, I realized how alone I was and started into depression. It was at that point that something told me I could still enjoy that moment. It still probably took another 30 years before I completely was able to kick the depression.

    Did I do anything myself? No, I don’t think so. I’d tried in the past to just “get over it.” Be happy, it would work for a while, but I’d sink back into the same darkness. I was never so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed and in that I was lucky.

    But I know just a little of depression and what little I knew was a constant battle.

    I have no answers, only my experience.

    • None of us has answers, but sharing our experiences can go a long way to helping others. We all have unique experiences with depression, which is why a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment doesn’t work.

      Interesting how you describe walking down the street kicking the leaves, and what effect that had on you. For me, it was walking down a city street one day and seeing my reflection in a building. I was shocked at how utterly defeated I looked.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  6. Thank you for this. People NEED to talk about it. Bring the topic out of the dark.
    When someone has a heart attack, people and doctors take it seriously. There is help around every corner. No-one shuns them.
    When someone is having an attack of depression, everyone scatters away. People look the other way, and pretend it isn’t happening. They don’t take it seriously. Until it’s too late.
    Depression affects more than the mind and body–it gets to the core of one’s being.
    Depression is an attack of the soul.

    • That is a very good way of putting it. Depression *is* an attack of the soul. It is my hope not that this tragedy will start a discussion, but that the discussion will continue after the dust has settled from this tragedy. In the days since Robin William took his life, the discussions I have seen on various social media channels have made me realize that there is still so much work to be done. But at least the discussions are happening, and I hope they will continue to happen.

      Thank you for your perspectives.

  7. Very insightful post. You could not have said it better. Thank you so much.

  8. I think support is the biggest factor to help in this area. Therapy helped me a lot too, and I’m not discounting that; but after therapy is over, or the money (or benefits) dry up, the depression hasn’t magically been cured, just hopefully managed. you still need support. I got that when talking candidly with both my sisters-in-law and we three all admitted to our various mental illnesses and then spontaneously fist bumped each other. I don’t know who initiated it, and it was kind of a funny thing to do, but it felt good. Kind of a unifying thing- we were in it together!
    I hereby fist bump you all out there! We are in a kind of club!

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