What Robin William’s Death Can Teach Us About Depression

Robin Williams died this week, apparently by suicide. I had learned during my undergraduate studies that he suffered from bipolar disorder and would use it to benefit his comedy, riding out the manic episodes to create exceptional improvisational comedy, both in his stand-up routines and in his screen roles. I admired that about him, how he turned a psychological disorder into something positive, useful, and, yes, very funny.

Robin was my favorite comic actor. (I adore Bill Cosby for his low-key comedy and tell-it-like-it-is bluntness.) But Robin… There was just something about him. Maybe it was that early admiration. Or his ability to play a variety of different roles really well. He was special. And yet, we discovered his dark side this week as the cause of death hit the airwaves. We learned that he’d entered rehab earlier this summer, a wise move for anyone struggling with addiction issues. Perhaps it’s the part of me that’s really fascinated with forensic psychology and behavioral analysis, but it seems odd that he’d want to improve his life through rehab if he was so depressed he was ready to end it all.

Yet, I realize that a depressed person can choose to end his life with very little warning and notice. Sure, often there are signs. For someone who had struggled for so long with depression, though, suicide looked like the only viable alternative. Robin’s critics slammed him for killing himself. I’m sure his family – his wife especially – are going through their own personal circle of hell in wake of Robin’s choice. Yet, sloughing all that away, a major positive of Robin’s death is, it brought the issue of depression front-and-center in America’s consciousness.

Contrary to what I’ve heard and read, depression isn’t something you just “get over,” nor is it a purely spiritual condition. Plenty of people of faith suffer from depression. I’m evidence that a person of strong faith can pray and pray for someone to be healed of an affliction, but has to accept that God has a different answer and a different plan from my own. People who are sad can get over sadness. People who are grieving can move through that journey to something like happiness again. People can even go through periods of what looks like depression based on circumstances of life. These are all instances that look very much like depression, but that are temporary.

Robin Williams, like so many other people, had very real, clinical depression. This isn’t a choice. This isn’t something you “get over.” It’s not a spiritual condition. This is a chemical problem in the brain that has to be medicated. The treatments are varied. Some people are able to treat depression successfully with some lifestyle changes, like regular exercise; change of scenery; and talk therapy. Others require daily medication to maintain an even mood. Still others are so severely depressed – we’re talking in-the-therapist’s-office-with-a gun-to-their-head depressed – that only the most radical of treatments will get them to where antidepressants even work.

Depressed brain comparison

A PET scan of the brain of someone with depression compared to someone without it

Depression is a disease.  There’s some correlation between depression and low serotonin reuptake in the brain.  Bottom line is, when someone has depression, their brain – that organ in our heads – is sick.  Why wouldn’t we find ways of treating it?  If the heart is diseased, we treat it, right?  We don’t think anything of a diabetic taking insulin, because their pancreas isn’t working the way it should.  There’s no stigma at all to taking inhaled steroids for asthma.  So why do we think that someone with depression – a disease of the brain – should just pray more or exercise more or “get over it”?

My best friend is one of those who have to take antidepressants on a daily basis. He can survive without his medication, but his moods will swing wildly. The antidepressants help him maintain more of an even keel. (I intentionally refer to his medication as “antidepressant” as opposed to by its name, because I don’t want to forget that his depression is a part of him.) Bobby goes through funks, even on his meds, but they don’t last long, and we can discuss and deal with them. Because he’s a valuable person who God created and loves (nevermind the fact that I happen to like the guy), it’s a no-brainer that I’m willing to enter into his depression with him for as long as it lasts – but I have to know about it first.  I asked him one time how he’d kill himself if it ever got that bad.  He told me, and I said, “Call me and wait, and I’ll come with you.”  I figure, 5 hours stuck with me in a car, and we can get through anything and everything.

Robin Williams’ death is making us talk about something that we’d rather just push aside and forget – depression.  I’ve never heard of anyone raising funds for depression awareness.  The awareness ribbon is kelly green, and we should start sporting one for those who we love who are battling this disease in silence.  The people I’ve met who are depressed are some of the strongest people I know, because each day they get up and move on, dealing with that day or the next step to the bathroom or whatever they have to do to get to the next whatever.  Even in their funks, they work and love and give something of themselves to others.  And each day, they find a reason to keep living.

If you’re dealing with unexplained sadness, hopelessness, disturbed appetite, disturbed sleep; or if you are thinking about hurting or killing yourself, PLEASE tell someone – anyone! – or call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). 


2 responses to “What Robin William’s Death Can Teach Us About Depression

  1. Blanche Nichols

    Wonderful piece, Sara. Your and my thoughts have been in sync.




    • Thanks for the kind words, Mom! It was a rather delicate piece to write, and I did so with something like “fear and trembling.” I’m already over my surprise that our thoughts are in sync. 😉


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