Like many people of my age, I first encountered Robin Williams in his role as the alien from Ork, Mork. In the years since then, his screen, television and stage appearances made me howl with laughter. His dramatic roles were chilling. Few have his gifts.
There are many others who will eulogize and reflect on Robin Williams, and they will do a better job than I could. I’d like to use this blog to add my name to the list of those who will, as Robin Williams once urged, seize the day and talk about depression.
Depression is real. I know from personal experience. Thankfully, my depression was never even close to the levels that Robin Williams had to deal with. Nevertheless, I understand that depression is a disease, and it needs treatment. It’s not just a matter of “snapping out of it.” Depression involves the brain chemicals. Sometimes, a good counselor can make a world of difference (as it did with me). Oftentimes, some medications are needed (Zoloft is my friend).
People with depression are often ashamed. “How could you be depressed? Things are going so well for you,” people might say. Being successful is not an antidote for depression. It doesn’t change the brain chemistry that is out of whack. It’s easier to simply not discuss depression with others. People with depression usually don’t want others to know that they are taking medication for it. There are a lot of ignorant people who think that if you’re on antidepressants, you’re a hair away from shooting up a restaurant or workplace.
I don’t know what drove Robin Williams to end his own life. I don’t know how severe his depression was. I assume that he had access to the best doctors and therapists. But even a man as brilliant as Robin Williams might feel ashamed and afraid to do what he really needed to do to beat this disease. It’s also possible that he did everything possible, but like cancer, the disease finally won.
If you think you might have depression, don’t be ashamed. There are more people around you who also have depression than you would imagine. I’m not one who believes that everyone needs to be on pills. But I am one who believes that there are a lot of people dealing with depression who could benefit from meds or counseling. If you think, or someone close to you thinks depression might be at work, ask for help. I remember the day I picked up the phone to call a psychologist I know to schedule an appointment. I felt like it was the darkest day, the ultimate failure. Looking back, I want to kick myself for not doing it sooner.
If someone you work, live, or socialize with has depression, educate yourself. It’s not something you need to regularly ask about, but don’t feel afraid to ask either. For those of us with depression, it’s kind of like having high blood pressure in a way—we simply have it, we control it with medication and/or therapy, and we go about our day. Don’t treat the depressed person as a special case or like a delicate flower. Do what you always do with that person: engage in water cooler talk, tell bad jokes, share stories about what your kids did over the weekend. If the topic comes up, tell the person you’re impressed that they are fighting the disease and that you’re glad they took the first steps.
Most importantly, don’t shun or avoid someone with depression. Don’t make jokes about them (unless you’re truly such a real orifice that you can’t help yourself). Don’t gossip with others, wondering aloud if the person is going to “go postal” or “pull a Robin Williams” (if you do something like that, you really are an orifice—and you know which one I mean). If the person’s depression is so severe that you worry, then talk to the person directly. Express willingness to help the person find a good doctor to work with. Be a good friend.
Robin, you’ve brought tears of laughter to us so many times, and now we feel only tears of sadness. If heaven exists, maybe you finally have those phenomenal cosmic powers (without the itty bitty living space).