I’ve spent a good portion of this week thinking about Robin Williams. I suspect I’m with the majority on that one. Robin Williams hangs himself because of depression? It’s just so out of the blue, and seemingly so out of character…
Williams’ death shook me up quite a bit because of its connection to depression and mental illness. Without getting too personal here, my life, like the lives of so many, has been touched by things like clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. For some of us, it’s a daily battle. The simple act of getting up to greet the day can be excruciating if your mind isn’t in a good place. And the notion that Robin Williams, seemingly the epitome of happiness and zest for life, dealt with such issues just doesn’t seem to fit. Mind you, in the last day or so we’ve learned he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which can often lead to depression. But it still seems so out of left field.
Heavy stuff. I don’t know what relationship Conroy had with Williams, if any. But what really hit me was: “His humor floated on a sea of pain.” Obviously, Robin Williams has millions of fans mourning him. And I’ll never discount him, his legacy, or what he’s brought to the world.
But how many people live their lives on that same sea of pain, and don’t have legions of admirers? How many people battle those same demons, and aren’t rich, famous, or loved like Robin Williams? And how many people are able to hide it as well as he did, and walk through their lives quietly suffering?
I don’t know if people necessarily want to hide things like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. But of course, they do. In America alone, one in four people deal with such issues in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So if so many of us are dealing with this kind of thing, then why hide it?
From an American standpoint, I think a lot of it has to do with the culture. The average American only gets two weeks of paid vacation a year. For those other 50 weeks, we’re trained to be nose to the grindstone, working our collective asses off to provide our families with a high quality of life, and keep this country chugging along. A recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher pointed to a Cadillac America commercial as a prime example of what the mindset of the United States workforce is supposed to be…
I’m not at all opposed to the concept of paving your own way in this world, working hard, or putting in long hours. But with that mindset comes a certain “push through the pain” attitude. We keep forging forward, despite whatever pain (be it physical or mental) might be ailing us. That’s a cool mindset to a point. But after awhile, it obviously has its drawbacks. And I think that’s what a lot of Americans do with mental illness. They forge through it because that’s what they think they’re supposed to, rather than taking care of themselves. Which ironically, would lead to longer and more productive careers.
Plus, I think a little bit of that “crazy person” stigma still exists, and as such, people are afraid to get that stamp. That’s probably not anybody’s fault, per se. It’s just the way our culture has been for so many generations, and you can’t necessarily eradicate that all at once.
In terms of the public’s awareness of mental illness, we live in an interesting time. Both the advancement of medical science and the emergence of the information age have paved the way for what exactly mental illness is, how it can be treated, and where one can get support. Still, I don’t think we as a culture are where we want to be.
Work is important. Ambition and drive are important. Putting a roof over your head is important. But so is enjoying your life. So is spending time with the people you love, and experiencing that love to its fullest. In my little head, that’s worth more than whatever professional accomplishments your professional life has to offer. It’s certainly worth more than material possessions, and it’s definitely worth more than corporate profits, or however you want to judge the success of a company.
Robin Williams was a man who could evoke great emotion from people. He made us laugh, obviously. But he could also make us cry. He could make us think. He could inspire us. And in his tragic death, he may have stumbled on to a way to inspire us one last time. NBCNews.com published a story about how William’s death has inspired a “coming out,” i.e. a dialogue about depression and suicide. Despite the horrific way it came about, that’s a great thing. The more we talk about something, the more aware we are. And with that awareness can come knowledge. And knowledge can pave the way for change. Specifically, change the way this country, and the world, see mental illness.
But at the very least, I hope Williams’ death inspires people to be a little nicer to one another over the next couple of weeks. Whether it’s an acquaintance, a coworker, or just a random joe on the street. Because you never know what someone’s going through. You never know who’s floating along on that same “sea of pain”
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