Reflections On The Death Of Robin Williams
Since Robin Williams took his life, around 17,000 people will have done the same. Because of our tendency to filter all human experience through celebrity, and because most of us know his work, our focus has been on Robin.
It was a terrible thing to happen. For the majority it was perplexing and perhaps, shocking. For Williams’ wife and children, his death will have been utterly traumatising – to the extent that the wound may never fully heal. We cannot possibly say what it meant to Robin. A British coroner would state that he ended his life ‘while the balance of his mind was disturbed’, but this is euphemistic. It is just as likely that he took the action in a moment of determination and sudden clarity. Self destruction can be a longed-for release as much as it can be the compulsion of utter despair. We can speculate endlessly; but we will never know.
Such events create a brief, but intense flashpoint. They trigger myriad reactions and behaviours. Williams’ fans would have experienced a sudden and unexpected sense of loss (which we must not confuse with the piercing grief of those who loved him). Others, also in the grip of mental distress, would have felt a kinship with someone they didn’t know, but who was now revealed to be a fellow traveller on a cruel, cruel road.
Then there are those for whom the news was just that: big news. Reporters in newspaper offices, television studios and radio stations, from Manchester to Missouri, seized the story and went to work. There’s no shame in a media organisation conveying the fact of Robin Williams’ suicide to an audience. The death of any prominent figure is, and always will be, newsworthy. It’s the manner in which the detail is gathered and communicated that deserves our scrutiny. Perhaps, in our weary cynicism, we should no longer be shocked that so many outlets were found wanting in this respect, but the collapse of sensitivity and common decency was significant. In the US, the ABC News homepage quoted the Williams family as ‘asking for privacy…at this very difficult time’. Above that was a scrolling banner which read ‘WATCH LIVE – AERIALS OF WILLIAMS’ HOME’. Their capitals. Their helicopters.
In the UK, The Samaritans rushed a message to the editors of our national papers. It contained their guidelines on the reporting of suicide. They knew the piece would make the front pages and were all too aware of the potential influence such a story has on anyone considering taking their life. The organisation understands the media must do its job, they simply work to prevent further harm. You can read the guidelines here.
Whether anyone of seniority at those newspapers, or anyone at all, read the message isn’t clear. Either way, several publications breached the advice, running headlines and copy which conflicted with The Samaritans’ suggestions. This only matters if one believes the media’s substantial power comes with a moral imperative, an obligation to care about its audience and its social function. If the impetus is merely to make money from sensation, then I suppose it doesn’t matter a jot.
This news has at least thrust the subject of depression into the limelight. It is going too far to say there is an upside, but this hideous condition is obviously deserving of deeper awareness and understanding.
Without surprise, I noticed commentators on social media questioning Robin Williams’ condition. He was fantastically successful, well-liked, wealthy, married with a loving family – what in the world did he have to be depressed about? This indicates the level of confusion around depression. Nobody would ask why a Hollywood star wasn’t immune to diabetes, and yet somehow Williams wasn’t ‘entitled’ to be mentally unwell. I don’t blame people for posing the question, they are simply ignorant of the facts: depression is a disorder as real and dangerous as cancer, thrombosis, or haemophilia. It is caused by chemical and electrical malfunctions in the brain, and cannot be relieved by ‘cheering up’ or ‘thinking positively’. Although treatable with medication and other therapies, its symptoms are hellish. For an astonishingly frank, powerfully moving and contemporary account of depression’s impact, I would urge anyone to read this post from the blog of TV presenter Annabel Giles.
On his show, the sports broadcaster Alan Brazil said he thought Williams was ‘selfish’. I’m sure this was a bid for some shock-jock notoriety. Nevertheless, in a way Brazil was right. When a cloak of bleak fear and gnawing anxiety has you in its grip, it is very hard to look outside oneself. But that is not the real person, it’s the illness.
That so many of Robin’s friends and associates have described him as a generous, decent man is entirely expected. Depressives often are. Perhaps a long gaze into the abyss of despair cannot help but produce a capacity for compassion and empathy when the illness lifts. Although it has now been revealed that Williams was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he was also a person prone to depressive episodes. Which, if either, of these difficulties drove him to take his life is unknown. However, the agonies of depression are more than capable of producing suicidal urges – indeed, a preoccupation with death is part of the syndrome. As surely as a coronary, depression can kill. Which is why we have a duty to support those overwhelmed by this illness.
For its ability to steal intelligent, caring and talented people from the world; and its appalling knack of reducing happy, strong individuals to stricken, tortured souls, we owe it to ourselves to know this spectre better.
The Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90
MIND: 0300 123 3393