The apparent suicide of Robin Williams has left many people shocked, saddened, hurt, and just plain confused.
Robin Williams touched so many people’s lives.
Testimonies to his kindness, generosity, and, of course, his world-class humor were everywhere in the days following his passing.
There’s another aspect to Robin Williams’ passing which has received a fair amount of attention: the role of depression in his death.
I’ve written about my experience with depression while I was stuck in the fog of it on here before (in Depression F-ing Sucks!).
In the article, I mention 5 tips that helped to pull me out of depression in hopes that it would help others.
Depression is something I’ve dealt with at different times in my adult life.
I haven’t encountered it frequently, but as anyone who has suffered from depression will tell you, it only takes experiencing depression once or twice to remove your ignorance of the pain and helplessness of it all.
Because when it hits you, it just sucks…
And if it’s something that you continually struggle with, my heart goes out to you.
A few days ago, I logged onto Facebook and began reading a discussion that three people were having about Robin Williams’ death.
One of the guys felt like Robin Williams committed a selfish act. And that he quit on himself and others.
It’s understandable why he or anyone else would feel this way.
Other questions that were raised were:
- Why would someone who seemingly had everything—success, celebrity, and made millions of dollars in the past—kill himself?
- How could he commit suicide when he had a family who depended on and loved him?
- Why would he allow his depression to get so bad that he forgot that life will get better in the end?
All of these questions and more come to mind when considering the death of Robin Williams.
I remember the responses that I received from friends and family after they learned about my depression when reading my post.
Many were absolutely shocked.
“I can’t believe how you, someone who is so upbeat, happy, and so uplifting, would have depression.”
They were simply reflecting an opinion that many people have. And this is also the trouble with depression.
The misguided idea that it’s a choice. That you can simply think, talk, or pray it all away.
That you can grab yourself by the bootstrap and lift yourself out of depression 100% of the time is just false.
If Robin Williams is any indicator, depression has nothing to do with how successful and famous or poor and unknown you are.
It afflicts everyone equally. Irrespective of race, gender, profession or wealth.
Just like cancer. Just like ALS. Just like scleroderma.
There’s so much confusion and misinformation about mental health.
To combat some of it, I’m going to share 3 things that I haven’t heard in any single discussion or report about Robin Williams’ death and depression.
1. Depression & DNA
That’s right. Scientists believe as much as 40-50% of those with depression can trace the cause to a combination of genes in their DNA. The other 50-60% is unrelated to genes, or caused by environmental factors.
See this quote from allaboutdepression.com that explains how fascinating research using identical twins led to this remarkable finding:
Much of what we know about the genetic influence of clinical depression is based upon research that has been done with identical twins. Identical twins are very helpful to researchers since they both have the exact same genetic code. It has been found that when one identical twin becomes depressed the other will also develop clinical depression approximately 76% of the time. When identical twins are raised apart from each other, they will both become depressed about 67% of the time. Because both twins become depressed at such a high rate, the implication is that there is a strong genetic influence. If it happened that when one twin becomes clinically depressed the other always develops depression, then clinical depression would likely be entirely genetic. However because the rate of both identical twins developing depression is not closer to 100% this tells us that there are other things that influence a person’s vulnerability to depression. These may include environmental factors such as childhood experiences, current stressors, traumatic events, exposure to substances, medical illnesses, etc.
Furthermore, research indicates that if you have a parent or sibling that has had major depression, you may be 2 to 3 times more likely to develop the condition than those who do not have a close relative with the condition.
This doesn’t mean that if you have a parent or relative with depression that you’re destined to become depressed, but it does mean that we may inherit a tendency to develop the illness.
This removes the false notion that depression is a choice.
But rather, at times, depression can choose you without you having much of a say in the matter.
The causes of bipolar and anxiety issues may also be traced to a combination of genetic factors.
2. Depression affects everyone differently
The Stanford School of Medicine estimates that 10% of Americans will experience clinical depression, or major depressive disorder, at some point in their lives. But not everyone will experience depression in the same way.
I mentioned in Depression F-ing Sucks that for weeks and weeks I would try to pull myself out of my depression.
I’d keep telling myself “You’ll be fine” and try to push through the blockade, convincing myself that it wasn’t a big deal and that I would get out of it by myself.
Even after 160 straight days into it, I will still afflicted with this mindset.
Why couldn’t I just get it into my head that I needed more help?
I was rationalizing the effects of depression by telling myself it wasn’t that bad. And I was attempting to minimize the reality of its effects in my mind.
I kept doing this until a friend told me something that made it finally click for me.
She told me, “No depression is better than another. They all affect people differently, and they all suck.”
And she was right.
Depression just sucks… whether you’ve had it for a few weeks or months, this type of depression or that type of depression… all of it just sucks.
Being able to accept that I was depressed was a huge step.
Remembering that depression affects everyone differently will help whether you’re experiencing depression or simply trying to help someone else through it.
I think a lot of us can relate to the sort of ass-backwards rationalization that I was using to convince myself that it wasn’t really that big of deal, right?
Maybe you’ve experienced it when telling yourself a relationship isn’t as bad as others think it is… so you justify staying in the relationship by telling yourself that it’s going to improve and that he or she will change.
Or when you tell yourself that your job is going to get better, so you choose to stay… even though it it’s making you unhappy, edgy, and you don’t like who you are for the 8 hours you’re there each day.
Later on you realize, “That was a really dumb decision to stick around… I know I should’ve left a long time ago!”
Sound uncomfortably familiar?
Understand that this illogical reasoning is the same irrational thinking that depressed individuals experience. Sometimes their mental chatter can be a lot more powerful and overwhelming.
Some depression patients can be so overwhelmingly affected by their mental illness that it can drive them to do things that most people would think insane. Like harming or even killing themselves.
Many depression patients who consider suicide rationalize their nonexistence to be better than what they or those around them have to deal with while they’re still living.
Their depression becomes almost like a parasite. And it forces its way into every thought and action, taking their brain over.
Unfortunately, some eventually give in to the parasite’s chatter.
Working from this point of reference, combined with empathy and compassion, can help us to adopt a more helpful perspective to assist someone who may be in need of help.
3. 5 Simple Strategies To Help Any Person Suffering From Depression & The # 1 Way to Save Lives
There’s two at least two distinct ways that I think you can really help someone with depression.The first, on an individual level, is to understand how you can support that person.
Here are a few simple strategies that you can use to help someone who is suffering from depression:
- Just be there… It seems too simple, but just being there while someone is struggling with depression may make all the difference. Knowing that someone genuinely cares for you and wants you to do better means the world.
- Offer your support, understanding, and encouragement. And be patient. The process to overcome depression, whether by treatment, counseling, or otherwise, can take a while. Being patient with the person suffering goes a long way in their recovery.
- Invite him or her out for walks, outings, and other activities. Exercise and social interaction help to reduce the symptoms of depression. If they don’t want to participate, no problem. Return to the first simple strategy: just be there.
- Never ignore comments about suicide. If they say something to you, share their comments with someone who is in a position to help, like their therapist or doctor. If you have no clue what to do, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). They’ll talk you through what you can do to help.
- Remind him or her that with time and treatment the depression will lift. Sometimes they know this, but after a while it gets daunting having to remind yourself of this fact. Hearing it from someone else and knowing that it’s true can really help with ensuring that the person doesn’t give in to their negative mental chatter.
The second method is one that can impact the largest groups of people with this illness and truly save the most lives.
It’s probably the single, best way to help everyone with depression.
The number one way that we can help people with depression is to start talking about this stuff openly.
We’re so good at hiding when shit is wrong with us…
We’re so conditioned at doing this that when we need help, we follow the same path and bottle it inside.
What makes it worse with depression is that there’s this stigma associated with it.
We think, “You’re mentally weak if you’re depressed.”
Or “If you’re depressed, there must be something really wrong with you.”
So we don’t talk about it. And then it becomes worse for us.
It’s this reason that depression, and mental illness in general, is taboo for all the wrong reasons.
We ignore the path that other illnesses and diseases took to in order to reduce the rate of people affected and increase awareness for future prevention.
Cancer, for example, was a topic that we wouldn’t openly talk about.
After we began discussing it, funding for research improved, treatments improved, and we continue to make progress towards finding a cure with education and campaigns.
Mental illnesses, like depression, must follow this path if we’re to make substantial progress with how it’s viewed and treated.
Sharing your experiences with depression, educating others who misunderstand it, and talking more openly about it is going to be the fastest way for us to save lives in the future.
In doing so, we honor the memories of those who have their lost their lives in the fight.
Robin Williams’ legacy is that of a humorist, humanitarian, and generous giver of his time, money, and presence.
He brought laughter to those who needed a quick break from the doldrums of everyday life; he worked with a number of charities both publicly and privately; and he gave permission to the people who knew and watched him to just be themselves. Quirky, wacky, and even encouraging us to retain our little spark of madness.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The quality of our presence is the element with the most positive contribution to the world.”
Robin Williams’ contribution remains in the hearts of those of us he’s touched even after his presence is no longer visible.
Thanks to my friend Ramin for suggesting that I write this article.