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Robin Williams’s death: a reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish

News of Robin Williams’s death due to apparent suicide (slit his wrists and hanged himself by a belt), said to be a result of suffering severe depression, is terribly sad.

To say taking your own life because of such an illness is a ‘selfish’ act does nothing but insult the deceased, potentially cause more harm and reveal a staggering ignorance of mental health problems

Robin Williams in Man of the Year (2006)
Many words can be used to describe Robin Williams. ‘Selfish’ should not be one of them. Photograph: Allstar/Universal PicturesSportsphoto Ltd.

Dean Burnett posted:   (on Twitter, @garwboy)

News broke today that Robin Williams had passed away, due to apparent suicide following severe depression.

As the vast majority of people will likely have already said, this was terribly heart-breaking news.

Such aniconic, talented and beloved figure will have no shortage of tributes paid to him and his incredible legacy. It’s also worth noting that Robin Williams was open about his mental health issues.

However, despite the tremendous amount of love and admiration for Williams being expressed pretty much everywhere right now, there are still those who can’t seem to resist the opportunity to criticise, as they do these days whenever a celebrated or successful person commits suicide. You may have come across this yourself; people who refer to the suicide as “selfish”.

People will utter/post phrases such as “to do that to your family is just selfish”, or “to commit suicide when you’ve got so much going for you is pure selfishness”, or variations thereof.

If you are such a person who has expressed these views or similar for whatever reason, here’s why you’re wrong, or at the very least misinformed, and could be doing more harm in the long run.

Depression IS an illness

Depression, the clinical condition, could really use a different name. At present, the word “depressed” can be applied to both people who are a bit miserable and those with a genuine debilitating mood disorder. Ergo, it seems people are often very quick to dismiss depression as a minor, trivial concern. After all, everyone gets depressed now and again, don’t they? Don’t know why these people are complaining so much.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; dismissing the concerns of a genuine depression sufferer on the grounds that you’ve been miserable and got over it is like dismissing the issues faced by someone who’s had to have their arm amputated because you once had a paper cut and it didn’t bother you.

Depression is a genuine debilitating condition, and being in “a bit of a funk” isn’t. The fact that mental illness doesn’t receive the same sympathy/acknowledgement as physical illness is oftenreferenced, and it’s a valid point. If you haven’t had it, you don’t have the right to dismiss those who have/do. You may disagree, and that’s your prerogative, but there are decades’ worth of evidence saying you’re wrong.

Depression doesn’t discriminate

How, many seem to wonder, could someone with so much going for them, possibly feel depressed to the point of suicide? With all the money/fame/family/success they have, to be depressed makes no sense?

Admittedly, there’s a certain amount of logic to this. But, and this is important, depression (like all mental illnesses) typically doesn’t take personal factors into account. Mental illness can affect anyone. We’ve all heard of the “madness” of King George III; if mental illness won’t spare someone who, at the time, was one of the most powerful well-bred humans alive, why would it spare someone just because they have a film career?

Granted, those with worse lives are probably going to be exposed to the greater number of risk factors for depression, but that doesn’t mean those with reduced likelihood of exposure to hardships or tragic events are immune. Smoking may be a major cause of lung cancer, but non-smokers can end up with it. And a person’s lifestyle doesn’t automatically reduce their suffering. Depression doesn’t work like that. And even if it did, where’s the cut-off point? Who would we consider “too successful” to be ill?

Depression is not ‘logical’

If we’re being optimistic, it could be said that most of those describing suicide from depression as selfish are doing so from a position of ignorance. Perhaps they think that those with depression make some sort of table or chart with the pros and cons of suicide and, despite the pros being far more numerous, selfishly opt for suicide anyway?

This is, of course, nonsensical. One of the main problems with mental illness is that is prevents you from behaving or thinking “normally” (although what that means is a discussion for another time). A depression sufferer is not thinking like a non-sufferer in the same way that someone who’s drowning is not “breathing air” like a person on land is. The situation is different.

From the sufferers perspective, their self-worth may be so low, their outlook so bleak, that their families/friends/fans would be a lot better off without them in the world, ergo their suicide is actually intended as an act of generosity? Some might find such a conclusion an offensive assumption, but it is no more so than accusations of selfishness.

The “selfish” accusation also often implies that there are other options the sufferer has, but has chosen suicide. Or that it’s the “easy way out”. There are many ways to describe the sort of suffering that overrides a survival instinct that has evolved over millions of years, but “easy” isn’t an obvious one to go for. Perhaps none of it makes sense from a logical perspective, but insisting on logical thinking from someone in the grips of a mental illness is like insisting that someone with a broken leg walks normally; logically, you shouldn’t do that.

Stephen Fry, in his interview on Richard Herring’s podcast, had a brilliant explanation about how depression doesn’t make you think logically, or automatically confide in friends and family. I won’t spoil it by revealing it here, but I will say it involves genital warts.

Accusations of selfishness are themselves selfish?

Say you don’t agree with any of the above, that you still maintain that for someone with a successful career and family to commit suicide is selfish. Fine. Your opinion, you’re entitled to have it, however much we may disagree.

But why would you want to publicly declare that the recently deceased is selfish? Especially when the news has only just broken, and people are clearly sad about the whole thing? Why is getting in to criticise the deceased when they’ve only just passed so important to you? What service are you providing by doing so, that makes you so justified in throwing accusations of selfishness around?

Do you think that depression is “fashionable?” And by criticising the sufferers you can deter others from “joining in”? Granted, we hear more about depression than we used to these days, but then we know what it is now. We see a lot more photos from Mars these days, because we have the means of doing so now, not because it’s suddenly trendy.

Perhaps you are trying to deter anyone else who might read your views from considering suicide themselves? Given that statistics suggest that one in four people suffer some sort of mental health problem, this isn’t that unlikely an occurrence. But if someone is genuinely depressed and feels their life is worthless, seeing that others consider their feeling selfish can surely only emphasise their own self-loathing and bleakness? It suggests that people will hate them even in death.

Maybe you know some people who have “attempted” suicide purely for attention? Fair enough; a debatable conclusion, but even if you’re right, so what? Surely someone who succeeds at committing suicide is a genuine sufferer who deserves our sympathy?

Perhaps you feel that those expressing sorrow and sadness are wrong and you need to show them that you know better, no matter how upsetting they may find it? And this is unselfish behaviour how, exactly?

A brilliant but tortured individual has taken his own life, and this is a tragedy. But levelling ignorant accusations of selfishness certainly won’t prevent this from happening again. People should never be made to feel worse for suffering from something beyond their control.

If you feel you are dealing with depression, the charity MIND has many helpful sources, but there are many other avenues you can pursue

Dean Burnett is on Twitter, @garwboy

Robin Williams, 63, passed away? If committed suicide, he had a lucid courage

The worst that can happen to you in life is to be surrounded with people who make you feel lonely and isolated

Viviane Ghoussoub's photo.
Patch Adams
Believe in the power of an #idea #RIPRobinWilliams

Believe in the power of an ‪#‎idea‬ ‪#‎RIPRobinWilliams‬

Robin Williams: ‘I was shameful, did stuff that caused disgust – that’s hard to recover from’

His new film, World’s Greatest Dad, is a glorious return to form. But a mournful Robin Williams would rather talk about his battle with drugs and alcohol – and recovering from heart surgery

In the normal order of things, an interview with a Hollywood actor observes the form of a transaction. The actor wants to promote their film, and ideally talk about little else – least of all anything of a personal nature. The newspaper is mildly interested in the new film, but hopes they can be tempted to talk about other matters – best of all their private life.

Sometimes the agreement is explicit, but most of the time it is mutually understood, and so the interview tends to proceed rather like a polite dance, with each party manoeuvring in its own interests. On this occasion, however, the convention appears to have been turned on its head.

  1. World’s Greatest Dad
  2. Production year: 2009
  3. Country: USA
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 99 mins
  6. Directors: Bobcat Goldthwait
  7. Cast: Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabana, Daryl Sabara, Evan Martin, Geoff Pierson, Henry Simmons, Jermaine Williams, Mitzi McCall, Robin Williams
  8. More on this film

Robin Williams‘s new film, World’s Greatest Dad, is brilliant. Having starred in a lot of unspeakably sentimental dross in recent years, here he is at last in something clever and thoughtful; a dark, slightly weird comedy that touches on all sorts of interesting themes that I’m hoping he’ll talk about. Williams, however, has other plans.

It is almost impossible to get anything coherent out of him about the film, or any of the issues it raises.  What Williams really wants to talk about, it turns out, is his relapse into alcoholism, his rehab and his open-heart surgery.

Unfortunately, it takes me some time to cotton on to this, so I keep asking questions about World’s Greatest Dad. Williams plays Lance, a failed writer, failed teacher and single father of perhaps the most irredeemably dislikable teenager ever to appear on screen. His son Kyle is addicted to hardcore internet pornography and is almost universally loathed – until he accidentally dies. His father fakes a suicide note, and when it is leaked, the school magazine reprints the letter, its poignancy prompting a posthumous revision of everyone’s former low opinion of the boy. Soon a juggernaut of confected grief is roaring out of control.

Unable to resist the allure of his new popularity, Lance proceeds to fake a whole journal, passing it off as his son’s and fuelling the insatiable hunger for loss. A bidding war breaks out between publishing houses, the journal becomes a bestselling book, and Lance winds up on a daytime TV show, like a pseudo celebrity, peddling his mythical son’s tragedy to the nation.

The film is a devastatingly funny indictment of the modern grief industry, but when I ask Williams if he thinks it’s getting worse, he says mildly, “Well, I think people want it. In a weird way, it’s trying to keep hope alive.” So does he not share the film’s judgment on mawkish sentimentality? “Well, you just try and keep it in perspective; you have to remember the best and the worst.” It seems as if he’s about to engage with the question – “In America they really do mythologise people when they die,” he agrees – but then he veers off at a tangent, putting on Ronald Reagan’s voice but talking about the ex-president in the third person: “Maybe he was kind of lovable, but you realised half way through his administration he really didn’t know where he was.”

I wonder if Williams had experienced a little bit of the film’s theme himself, when his great friend Christopher Reeve died. Was it hard, I ask, to see fans mourning Superman, when to Williams he was a real person, a real friend?

“He was a friend,” Williams says solemnly. “And also knowing him, especially after the accident and everything he went through – it was a weird thing.” What was it like, I try again, to grieve privately for a public figure?

“Well, it’s a whole different game,” he says, but then starts talking about the death of Reeve’s wife a year later. “It happens all the time, I know, but I know their kids, they’re amazing, and to see them go through so much loss in one year – that’s tough.”

I ask about the media’s role in the manufacturing of grief, but instead he recalls a talkshow he saw where a man confessed to adultery before a female studio audience. “Idiot. Why don’t you just go bobbing for piranha? These women are screaming ‘You bastard!’, but the idea of being on TV overrode everything.” He adopts a southern redneck accent: “‘Ah’m on TV, y’all.’ You’re a schmuck, why would you do that?” Then the accent again: “Ah’m on tee-vee, ah’m gonna be fay-mous.’ Yeah, for all of five minutes, big time.”

We’re not making much headway on the grief industry, so I try internet porn. Williams’s three children have grown up through the internet age, so I’m curious about his views on its impact on adolescents. “It’s just like – there’s everything you could ever think about online.”

But what does Williams actually think about it; is it liberating and a good thing, or corrupting and a bad thing? “It’s an old thing,” he shrugs. “Look at the walls of Pompeii. That’s what got the internet started.” Then he starts talking rather boringly about iPhones, and how it’s now possible to do video-conference calls on a mobile.

My worry beforehand had been that Williams would be too wildly manic to make much sense. When he appeared on the Jonathan Ross show earlier this summer, he’d been vintage Williams – hyperactive to the point of deranged, ricocheting between voices, riffing off his internal dialogues.

Off-camera, however, he is a different kettle of fish. His bearing is intensely Zen and almost mournful, and when he’s not putting on voices he speaks in a low, tremulous baritone – as if on the verge of tears – that would work very well if he were delivering a funeral eulogy. He seems gentle and kind – even tender – but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.

Even the detours into dialogue feel more like a reflex than irrepressible comic passion, and the freakish articulacy showcased in Good Morning Vietnam has gone. Quite often when he opens his mouth a slur of unrelated words come out, like a dozen different false starts tangled together, from which an actual sentence eventually finds its way out. For example, “So/Now/And then/Well/It/I – Sometimes I used to work just to work.” It’s like trying to tune into a long-wave radio station.

I find myself wondering if alcohol abuse might have something to do with it. Williams used to be a big-drinking cocaine addict, but quit both before the birth of his eldest son in 1983, and stayed sober for 20 years. On location in Alaska in 2003, however, he started drinking again. He brings this up himself, and the minute he does he becomes more engaged.

“I was in a small town where it’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going fuck, maybe that will help. And it was the worst thing in the world.” What did he feel like when he had his first drink? “You feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it’s a problem, and you’re isolated.”

Some have suggested it was Reeve’s death that turned him back to drink. “No,” he says quietly, “it’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” What was he afraid of? “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.”

He didn’t take up cocaine again, because “I knew that would kill me”. I’d have thought it would be a case of in for a penny – “In for a gram?” he smiles. “No. Cocaine – paranoid and impotent, what fun. There was no bit of me thinking, ooh, let’s go back to that. Useless conversations until midnight, waking up at dawn feeling like a vampire on a day pass. No.”

It only took a week of drinking before he knew he was in trouble, though. “For that first week you lie to yourself, and tell yourself you can stop, and then your body kicks back and says, no, stop later. And then it took about three years, and finally you do stop.”

It wasn’t, he says, fun while it lasted, but three years sounds like a long time not to be having fun. “That’s right. Most of the time you just realise you’ve started to do embarrassing things.” He recalls drinking at a charity auction hosted by Sharon Stone at Cannes: “And I realised I was pretty baked, and I look out and I see all of a sudden a wall of paparazzi. And I go, ‘Oh well, I guess it’s out now’.”

In the end it was a family intervention that put him into residential rehab. I wonder if he was “Robin Williams” in rehab, and he agrees. “Yeah, you start off initially riffing, and kind of being real funny. But the weird thing is, how can you do a comic turn without betraying the precepts of group therapy? Eventually you shed it.”

Williams still attends AA meetings at least once a week – “Have to. It’s good to go” – and I suspect this accounts for a fair bit of his Zen solemnity. At times it verges on sentimental: he asks if I have children, and when I tell him I have a baby son he nods gravely, as if I’ve just shared. “Congrats. Good luck. It’s a pretty wonderful thing.” But it may well be down to the open-heart surgery he underwent early last year, when surgeons replaced his aortic valve with one from a pig.

“Oh, God, you find yourself getting emotional. It breaks through your barrier, you’ve literally cracked the armour. And you’ve got no choice, it literally breaks you open. And you feel really mortal.” Does the intimation of mortality live with him still? “Totally.” Is it a blessing? “Totally.”

He takes everything, he says, more slowly now. His second marriage, to a film producer, ended in 2008 – largely because of his drinking, even though by then he was sober. “You know, I was shameful, and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from. You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering from it. It’s not coming back.”

The couple had been together for 19 years, and have a son and a daughter, both now grown up; he has another son from his first marriage to an actress in the late 70s.

Williams is now with a graphic designer, whom he met shortly before his heart surgery, and they live together in San Francisco. “But we’re taking it slow. I don’t know, maybe some day we’ll marry, but there’s no rush. I just want to take it easy now. This is good news. It’s the whole thing of taking it slow. And it’s so much better.”

Williams thinks he used to be a fairly classic workaholic, but at 59 is now taking it slow professionally too. “In one two-year period I made 8 movies. At one point the joke was that there’s a movie out without you in it. You have this idea that you’d better keep working otherwise people will forget. And that was dangerous. And then you realise, no, actually if you take a break people might be more interested in you. Now, after the heart surgery, I’ll take it slow.”

Williams has been nothing if not prolific. After first finding fame in the late 70s as a kooky space alien in the sitcom Mork and Mindy, he became better known as a standup comedian, but his astonishing performance in Good Morning Vietnam earned him an Oscar nomination in 1988, with two more in the following five years, for Dead Poets’ Society and The Fisher King. Mrs Doubtfire, in which he dragged up to play a nanny, brought wider mainstream success, and in 1998 Good Will Hunting finally won him an Oscar. In recent years, however, he has made an awful lot of what would politely be described as less critically acclaimed films.

Some of them have been downright awful; schmaltzy family comedies drenched in maudlin sentiment, such as the unwatchably saccharinePatch Adams or, even worse, Old Dogs.

When I ask why he made them, he says: “Well, I’ve had a lot of people tell me they watched Old Dogs with their kids and had a good time.” It didn’t offend his sense of integrity? “No, it paid the bills. Sometimes you have to make a movie to make money.” He didn’t mistake them, he adds, for intelligent scripts: “You know what you’re getting into, totally. You know they’re going to make it goofy. And that’s OK.”

Like many people, I had always been confused by Williams’s film choices. The sharpness of his early standup just seemed so incompatible with the sentimentality of his worst movies, and if, as Williams claims, Old Dogs simply paid the bills, he must have one very high-maintenance lifestyle.

When I watched World’s Greatest Dad I just assumed it echoed his own sensibility more accurately than all the other rubbish he has made. But actually, having met him, I’m not sure it does. I don’t know whether it was rehab or heart surgery, but he seems to have arrived at a place where sentimentality can sit quite easily.

I ask if he feels happier now, and he says softly, “I think so. And not afraid to be unhappy. That’s OK too. And then you can be like, all is good. And that is the thing, that is the gift.”

World’s Greatest Dad is released on 24 September

Je suis vraiment touchée de prendre connaissance du décès de l'acteur Robin Williams. </p><br /><br /><br />
<p>Quand des personnes comme M. Williams s’enlèvent la vie, on s’étonne toujours, car ils étaient pour nous de véritables rayons de soleil. C’était certainement son cas. D’ailleurs, on dit qu’il s’est suicidé, mais j’ai plutôt l’impression qu’il s’est sauvé la vie pendant 63 ans en combattant la dépression avec son humour et sa douce folie. Je devine qu’il était doté d’un courage immense, et, bien que j’aurais évidemment souhaité une issue différente, il a tout mon respect et mon admiration.</p><br /><br /><br />
<p>Dans un autre ordre d’idées, quand comprendrons-nous enfin, une fois pour toutes, que rien de ce qui est «supposé» nous rendre heureux n’a ce pouvoir? Nous voyons constamment des personnes très populaires et très prospères s’autodétruire – que ce soit en menant une vie d’addiction et de superficialité, ou en s’enlevant la vie… Et même quand on ne voit pas ce qui se passe derrière la scène, on peut souvent percevoir une infinie tristesse dans leur regard, malgré leurs sourires brillants. Or, nous continuons malgré tout de cultiver l’illusion que l’argent ou la reconnaissance remplira le petit vide dans notre cœur. Oh, pour eux, ce n’est peut-être pas suffisant, mais pour nous, ce sera différent. Et en attendant cette solution magique, on passe à côté de la seule vraie magique possible. Celle de l’instant. Exactement tel qu’il est maintenant.</p><br /><br /><br />
<p>Ainsi, sans bien sûr se refuser l’abondance et l’expansion que nous désirons, apprenons de l’expérience des autres – de l’expérience de Robin Williams, et de tous ceux que le «succès» (mais qu’est-ce que le succès?) n’a pas guéris ou remplis ou sauvés. Cessons de croire à ces voix dans notre tête qui nous vendent l’idée que le bonheur sera enfin possible dans telle ou telle condition, et apprenons à devenir immédiatement cette source de paix et d’amour que nous attendons. (Et évidemment, si on est cliniquement dépressif, comme M. Williams semblait l’être, allons chercher de l’aide le plus vite possible.)</p><br /><br /><br />
<p>Bises magique à vous. xx
Matin Magique posted on FB

Je suis vraiment touchée de prendre connaissance du décès de l’acteur Robin Williams.

Quand des personnes comme M. Williams s’enlèvent la vie, on s’étonne toujours, car ils étaient pour nous de véritables rayons de soleil. C’était certainement son cas.

D’ailleurs, on dit qu’il s’est suicidé, mais j’ai plutôt l’impression qu’il s’est sauvé la vie pendant 63 ans en combattant la dépression avec son humour et sa douce folie.

Je devine qu’il était doté d’un courage immense, et, bien que j’aurais évidemment souhaité une issue différente, il a tout mon respect et mon admiration.

Dans un autre ordre d’idées, quand comprendrons-nous enfin, une fois pour toutes, que rien de ce qui est «supposé» nous rendre heureux n’a ce pouvoir?

Nous voyons constamment des personnes très populaires et très prospères s’autodétruire – que ce soit en menant une vie d’addiction et de superficialité, ou en s’enlevant la vie…

Et même quand on ne voit pas ce qui se passe derrière la scène, on peut souvent percevoir une infinie tristesse dans leur regard, malgré leurs sourires brillants.

Or, nous continuons malgré tout de cultiver l’illusion que l’argent ou la reconnaissance remplira le petit vide dans notre cœur.

Oh, pour eux, ce n’est peut-être pas suffisant, mais pour nous, ce sera différent. Et en attendant cette solution magique, on passe à côté de la seule vraie magique possible. Celle de l’instant. Exactement tel qu’il est maintenant.

Ainsi, sans bien sûr se refuser l’abondance et l’expansion que nous désirons, apprenons de l’expérience des autres – de l’expérience de Robin Williams, et de tous ceux que le «succès» (mais qu’est-ce que le succès?) n’a pas guéris ou remplis ou sauvés.

Cessons de croire à ces voix dans notre tête qui nous vendent l’idée que le bonheur sera enfin possible dans telle ou telle condition, et apprenons à devenir immédiatement cette source de paix et d’amour que nous attendons.

Et évidemment, si on est cliniquement dépressif, comme M. Williams semblait l’être, allons chercher de l’aide le plus vite possible.

Bises magique à vous. xx


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