Robin Williams Made the Whole World Laugh
A reflection on Robin Williams' suicide and the disease of clinical depression
Robin Williams made the whole world laugh, and he died of sadness, how can that be true? I mean, he was the psychologist who healed Good Will Hunting. He was Patch Adams, the doctor who brought laughter to sick beds. He brought humanity to Vietnam. How could he, of all people, take his own life? This is the unspoken irony beneath all the tributes pouring out at the sad news of the death of this unique, talented, and gifted man who inspired so many.
Robin Williams talked and joked about his struggles with addictions, with sobriety, with heart disease, and with his depression. We hoped that he was victorious over them all. If the report of his suicide is to be believed, apparently that was not true. I am a clinical psychologist and a priest, and I know all too well that suicide is a desperate solution to hopeless pain. Not even those who love them the most are capable of predicting or preventing it, and surely they cannot look backwards and explain it. “Suicide is a terminal illness,” warned one of my teachers, the great Dr. Karl Menninger.
If we do not, and cannot, know why Robin Williams died, the very least we can do is use this sadness to pay attention to the disease of clinical depression. I am not talking about sadness, or disappointment, or even grief. I am not talking about a mood. I am talking about a disease that lasts for a period of at least two weeks and that decreases our ability to feel good, to experience interest or pleasure; that causes problems in sleep, eating, energy, concentration, self-image; that leads us to have difficulty experiencing friendship, intimacy, and meaning in life.
Each year, about 16 million adults in the United States suffer from an episode of clinical depression, and it also strikes children and adolescents. This illness doesn’t always happen for a reason. It doesn’t always happen after disappointing or traumatic events. It can happen after happy events, like the birth of a child. It often accompanies other illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. It can strike out of the blue for no apparent reason at all.
It does not always look like we think it looks. While it is true that people with depression often find it hard to go to work, a number of very successful and accomplished people suffer from depression. Just this summer, Ian Thorpe, Australia’s most accomplished and showcased athlete, who began winning world swimming championships at the age of 16, acknowledged that he has struggled with depression most of his life, and not even the people who wondered if Ian Thorpe might be gay ever guessed he felt that badly about himself. But then again, who would have guessed that about Robin Williams?
Depression is a pervasive illness, and people cannot just snap out of it or get over it any more than you can snap out of diabetes. Depression even affects a person’s spirituality. Where patients with other diseases often turn to their spiritual life for strength in their illness, people who suffer from depression find it almost impossible to pray or believe in a loving God. Depression strikes the body, the mind, and the soul.
If you suffer from depression or if you know someone who suffers from depression, this is a serious illness, pay attention to it, and get some professional help. The good news is that help helps! The combination of psychotherapy and pharmacology is effective in treating depression 80% of the time. For the 20% who experience treatment resistant depression, which means a depression whose physical causes we do not yet understand, help helps you manage your illness. We do not know how to cure diabetes yet, but we can help you live a productive life with it; we may not be able to cure your depression, but we can help you have a productive life with it.
If you suffer from depression, don’t isolate yourself, don’t blame yourself, and remember this is a disease. Depression is not who you are, it is an illness you have. It’s not your fault, but you can’t do it alone. With help you can manage this disease. There is even a special Psalm for you — Psalm 130, which reads: “Out of the depths I call to you O Lord, Lord hear my cry. Listen attentively to the sound of my pleading! My whole being hopes in the Lord, for with the Lord is faithful love and generous ransom from my distress.”
If you know someone who has committed suicide, the Catholic Church does not damn them to hell. No, we entrust these tortured souls to the faithful love of God, who alone makes sense of our lives and brings them peace. It is to those wise and loving arms to which I entrust the soul of Robin Williams, confident that God has already told him what he once told young Will Hunting, “Robin, it’s not your fault.”