In 1995, Christopher Reeve, the actor best known for his portrayal of Superman, was involved in a horse-riding accident that left him entirely paralysed from the waist down. While he was in hospital, at a time which Reeve described as the lowest he felt in his life; a man entered his room dressed in a surgical gown, with a hat on his head and glasses over his face. The man declared that he was Reeve’s proctologist and that he must carry out a colonoscopy immediately. This man was Robin Williams.
“For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.” – Christopher Reeve
Robin Williams was a man who dedicated his life to making people laugh (though he was entirely capable of delivering powerful performances that made us cry too). He was a man who was famously loving and kind, not just to his family and friends but to everybody. There are literally hundreds of stories from fans who report the effort he made to make them happy; and it’s well known that whenever he arrived at a film set or at a TV studio he would personally introduce himself to every single one of the crew. This might sound like a simple gesture, or you may think it was a façade to enhance his reputation, but whatever your own opinions; how many other actors and actresses take the time and energy to make every person on a set feel appreciated, to make them smile, to entertain them instead of making demands? Not many I’ll wager.
So why is it, that an individual who is so adored by so many, has had such a successful and distinguished career, and has a family who loves them deeply, would choose to take their own life?
The answer is a simple one. Because he was battling against severe depression. A battle which ultimately he lost; like countless others before him.
For many people, in fact I’d say most, this is not a satisfactory answer.
Just look at any of the media coverage of his death: the majority of the coverage is attempting to explain the reasons behind his depression and the reasons he felt he had to end his own life. Many have agreed that his suicide was the result of his struggles with addiction, while others are suggesting that he was having problems with his family; but whatever the suggestion, nearly all the media outlets have the same thing in common: the idea that there must be more behind his death than the singular reason that he was depressed.
It’s not just the media: most of the conversations I have been involved in, have overheard, or have seen on social media, have revolved around this same questions: Why would he chose to kill himself? How could he be depressed when he had such a great life? What was the reason for this struggle which eventually overcame him? People simply cannot comprehend the idea that someone could kill themselves possibly for no other reason than that they were battling a mental illness.
So let me break this down for anyone who is finding it difficult to understand.
If what follows in this article makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, good: because that discomfort that a large majority of people feel when discussing mental health is the subject that I’m aiming to address.
Mental health, and specifically in this case, depression, is something that nearly everyone has heard of and knows at least a little about; but virtually no one wants to talk about in a serious or meaningful way.
Depending on where you look for statistics, it’s estimated that either one in four or even one in three people in the UK will experience depression at some stage in their life. At the time of writing that is either just over 16,000,000 or just over 21,000,000 people in the UK. And that’s just based on reported cases.
It’s almost absurd then, that something which affects such a staggering number of people, is still such a taboo topic of discussion. What is the reason behind this?
Two of the biggest contributing factors, in my experience, are denial and ignorance (or maybe I should say naïvety to avoid sounding like I am trying to offend anyone).
Despite the huge advances our society has made towards becoming more liberal and accepting, for some reason there is still a massive stigma around telling someone how you feel when you’re depressed or asking for help when you are struggling. An obvious illustration of this point, which you can relate to even if you have never experienced any form of depression or anxiety, is this: when was the last time you honestly answered the question “How are you?”.
I want you to think about that for a few seconds, and about the last time someone asked you that question. You probably answered something along the lines of “Fine, thanks.” or “I’m good, you?”. Maybe you were a little more honest and said something like “A bit tired actually” or “Yeah, not too bad.” but how often have you used these responses because they are more convenient than saying “Actually, I feel a little bit shit today. There’s nothing wrong but I just don’t feel happy.”? And for anyone reading this who has experience some form of depression, or been going through tough circumstances, how often have you used these responses because they’re easier than telling someone you feel down, or explaining to them what you’re going through?
To answer my own enquiry, I imagine it has been a long time since you completely honestly replied to such a simple, basic question.
Why then do we feel so compelled to keep any and all negative thoughts and feelings to ourselves when there’s a good chance the people you are talking to have had them as well? Why do we feel that we have to go through hardship alone when it’s more than likely that the people around us have been through something similar themselves?
This is where ignorance/naïvety comes into play. Because while there may be one in three or one in four people who do understand what you’re going through, there are still two in three, or three in four, people who don’t. And it’s these people (sorry if you are one of these people, again, I don’t mean to offend) who are the problem.
The reason for this is because depression is not something you can see, and it’s not something you can really measure. As such, it’s something that you can only really understand if you have had it. Sure, you can read about it as much as you like, talk to people who have it and ask them to explain what it’s like; but unless you have experienced it for yourself, you can’t possibly understand what it actually feels like. Try imagining what an ice cream flavour you’ve never had before might taste like: you can’t; because you’ve never had it before. You can read a description of the flavour, and you can ask your friend who has tried it what it tastes like, but until you’ve actually tried it yourself you can’t actually know the taste. And it’s the same with depression.
This would be ok if depression was something you could see: if someone has broken their leg you can see what the problem is, and though you might not be able to imagine the pain, you have an idea of what it might feel like and you understand how the pain is affecting their daily life. But depression is a pain of the mind; a pain that can be just as hard, if not harder, than a physical injury, and as I said earlier, we feel compelled not to talk about how we’re really feeling, so it’s almost impossible to know when someone is depressed unless they want you to know.
The end result of this is that people are walking around feeling miserable, struggling terribly, potentially wanted their lives to be over, but their friends, maybe even their family, may have absolutely no idea that anything is even wrong.
So why would you spend time helping somebody if you don’t know something is wrong with them? Why would you go out of your way to make sure they’re feeling ok, and that they know they have love and support? You wouldn’t. And it’s the same for understanding depression: people don’t feel as if they need to make themselves more aware of what it is, how it may affect somebody or the signs to watch out for, because most people don’t realise how big of a problem it is, or that it might be affecting someone close to them. This is what needs to change.
Robin Williams is just one of millions who take their own life every year, yet still very little is done about it. The key to helping these people is improving society’s understanding of depression before it gets to the stage where it’s too late to help someone. Why are mental health issues, like depression, not explained at school to people while they are at a young age? Many would undoubtedly argue that children are too young to such discuss dark, grown up topics, but children are incredibly perceptive and often possess compassion and understanding greater than most adults. Surely giving a child an understanding of these things, which may ultimately save someone’s life, is worth the risk that they won’t completely understand at first, and might ask questions?
Why are mental health issues not more prominently addressed in the press? With Robin Williams’ suicide, why did news outlets not take the opportunity to explain the dangers of depression or to urge other people going through the same thing to reach out to somebody, anybody, for help before taking the same action? Why instead have they turned a tragedy into a circus show: an excuse to have excited speculation over what drugs he was addicted to, whether his marriage was in trouble, or in the case of American news network NBC; streaming live aerial footage of Robin Williams’ home after the story broke?
Why is mental health not portrayed more realistically and honestly in film and television? Often mental health issues are used as explanations for the quirkiness of one of the supporting characters, or even as the subject of jokes in sitcoms such as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. How often do mainstream films or TV shows feature a protagonist with a mental illness? The success of the film Silver Lining’s Playbook (2012), which featured a protagonist suffering from bipolar disorder, and Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) which dealt with depression, anxiety, and suicide, showed that this can be done, and be done successfully.
Why aren’t governments doing more to draw attention to mental illness and putting more money towards raising awareness of it? Why aren’t they offering more funding and support for people who need help? The NHS is terrible at dealing with people who are suffering from mental illnesses, to the point where I firmly believe they do more harm than good, and private mental health hospitals are astoundingly expensive: we’re talking over a hundred pounds a night, and serious patients might need to stay for weeks or months; yet the government offers virtually no financial support, and is doing nothing to improve the service provided by the NHS. Go to a GP to talk about feeling depressed and the chances are you will be put on anti-depressants or mood stabilisers just to get you out of the door as quickly as possible. They won’t spend time addressing the problem, and rarely will they forward you for professional help from a psychiatrist or counsellor. But why not, when so many people are affected by it, and tragically so many people lose their lives every year because of it?
Perhaps the worst reaction to Robin Williams’ suicide was that of Shep Smith; news anchor for Fox News. Smith offered a remorseless, live-on-air critique of Williams’ choice to take his own life, labelling him a coward and recounting a story about how he used to read his daughter bedtime stories before going on to say: “One of the children he so loved, one of the children grieving tonight — because their father killed himself in a fit of depression” adding “It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? You could love three little things so much, watch them grow, they’re in their mid-20s, and they’re inspiring you, and exciting you, and they fill you up with the kind of joy you could never have known. And yet, something inside you is so horrible, or you’re such a coward, or whatever the reason, that you decide that you have to end it.”
Sickening. Here was a human being, going through such agony that he felt he could no longer continue to live. A man who was in so much pain, that he had to leave the people he loved and cared for most in the world. I don’t imagine this was a choice that this caring, loving man made lightly. In fact I don’t imagine that it felt like much of a choice at all. Yet instead of taking this as an indicator of the sheer, unimaginable struggle that Williams was facing, and had probably been facing for years, Smith (and others) have instead described him as cowardly.
And this reaction is common. Whenever anyone commits suicide, there are always people who accuse them of being weak or selfish. This displays not only a grave misunderstanding of depression, but also a lack of basic human empathy. By the time a person reaches a point where they feel like suicide is their only way out, it is because their pain is so total they cannot see any other alternative. Surely a person in this situation should receive sympathy and compassion? If a person was in complete physical pain to the point where they wanted their life to end, no one would begrudge them this. The support for euthanasia to be legalised in the UK is huge, which demonstrates that people have sympathy for those struggling with physical conditions, who no longer wish to fight; so why then does this not transfer over to people with mental pain? Why does no one accuse a man with cancer, who wishes to die, of being a coward for leaving his family, rather than staying alive and suffering? Because depression isn’t understood. Because it still isn’t seen as entirely real. Because there is still a mentality that people should just suck it up and deal with it.
For anyone reading this (well done and thank you for making it this far) who has never experienced depression themselves, I’m going to describe to you, as best I can, what depression feels like. I may not be able to enact the changes to the press, to the media and to the government that I’ve talked about (although I’m gonna give it a go!), but if I can give a better understanding to even just those few who are reading this blog then that’s great. So here we go.
First of all you need to understand that depression isn’t as simple as just feeling really sad. In fact you might not feel sad at all. Depression can actually be a complete absence of any feelings at all; a numbness to the world and people around you. This might not sound so terrible at first, but just imagine it for a few moments: imagine what it would be like to be going to see a band you love but not being able to get excited. Imagine going on holiday to an interesting place you’ve never been to before, but not being able to appreciate any of the wonderful things you see there, because you just don’t feel any sense of wonder anymore. Imagine falling asleep next to the person you love, your boyfriend or girlfriend, but feeling nothing. Knowing you should be happy but not being able to feel it. Imagine how eventually the people close to you would begin to get frustrated, or angry, or upset with you, because you come across as constantly disinterested or apathetic towards them. You care about these people, and without them your life would be awful, but while you may be able to express this in words, you can’t express it with your actions because you feel like you’re in a bubble, separate from the world and the people around you.
Depression is waking up in the morning and being anxious for the day to start because you know how hard it’s going to be. Depression is not being able to sleep at night because your mind won’t stop going over all the mistakes you made today, all the mistakes you made this month, and hell, the mistakes you made years ago that have been forgotten by everyone but you. Depression is analysing yourself constantly and finding new flaws, new inadequacies, all the time, no matter how rich/successful/attractive/popular you might be. Depression is consistently and neurotically questioning yourself, doubting yourself and your decisions. Depression is considering all the things that could go wrong, no matter how far-fetched, before there’s even a slight warning that they might go wrong at all. Depression is being surrounded by your favourite people on a gorgeous summer day, but feeling completely alone. Feeling like the world is dark and cold even though the sun is shining. Depression is like having a black cloud wrapped around you, which stops any joy or light from reaching you; but you’re the only one who can see it, so no one understands why you aren’t happy. They just think it’s you. Maybe you tell them it’s not, but they don’t get it. Maybe they say they get it, but they don’t. In their heads, they still think it’s you. They think you’re just not trying hard enough to be happy, and that if you wanted to you could be, so isn’t it your fault? Why don’t you just cheer up?
Depression is like sinking slowly into unfathomably deep water; it takes so much energy just to stay above the surface and sometimes you don’t feel like you want to keep swimming. You’re tired and wouldn’t it be so much easier just to let yourself sink? Depression is losing people you love because you’re dragging them down, and they can’t drown with you. Depression is feeling, with almost absolute certainty, that life is never going to be good again.
Depression is all of these things.
Now imagine facing that every day. Imagine facing that every day for years. Wouldn’t you eventually get tired? Wouldn’t you eventually want it to stop? And what if you’d tried everything else? What if you’d tried medications and talking to professionals and talking to loved ones? Would you endure that pain, potentially for the rest of your life, never knowing if life was going to get better or if you would feel happy again? Would you endure it for the sake of your loved ones, even if eventually your depression pushed them away and you ended up alone?
There are ways to deal with depression and ways to help people get through it, so that suicide doesn’t become their only option, but the problem has to be dealt with early on and it has to be dealt with properly. The only way to do this is to start by improving awareness and understanding of what it is; so please, if you have taken anything from this post, and I really hope that you have, then spread it around. Take the time to make sure someone’s ok if they seem a little down. Take the time to make sure someone’s ok even if they don’t seem a little down! You don’t have to pester someone or bombard them with questions, in fact that’s usually the opposite of what they need; sometimes even the smallest kind gesture can make a dark day a little bit brighter, and who knows what that tiny bit of light could do for someone? There is ALWAYS time to let the people you care about know that you love them, and that you’re there to support them, because maybe they’re suffering and you don’t know it, and maybe you save their life.
Finally, I have a challenge for anyone who wishes to accept it – Next time someone asks you how you are, why not tell them?