Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Robin Williams' Final Gift

Photo Credit: Peter Hapak for TIME Magazine
*Today's post is not frugality related, but  something I feel compelled to write about. 

By all accounts, Robin Williams was a generous man - not just financially, but with his time, through his kindness, and his humble nature that made it possible for him, one of the biggest stars in America, to relate to his fellow human beings in everyday life.  Both the famous and non-famous seem to have the same account of this man: generous, kind and funny.  Good god was he funny.  But like Pagliacci, the famous clown, Robin Williams was struggling with a deep pain that millions of people struggle with worldwide.  A very common, and very dangerous illness that few like to talk about and even fewer admit to experiencing: Depression. Robin Williams’ legacy in life was the gift of laughter and entertainment, but through his tragic suicide, his insurmountable pain, he has left us with another gift – blowing wide open the dirty little secret that causes so many to suffer in silence and is the number one cause of suicide worldwide.  And it may save lives.

Like a fungus, depression thrives in the dark – isolation, shame and solitude keep people from getting the help they need.  Like Robin, many of us who have struggled with depression wear a mask of happiness to hide what society deems a flaw in personality, rather than an illness.  Whatever the cause of someone’s depression – stress, life events, medical factors, chemical imbalance, spiritual causes, there are very real physical changes happening in the brain.  And when it goes untreated for long enough – the consequences may be deadly.  People can hide depression for a time, but not forever. If not exposed in the light of day, the fungus will destroy its host – and leave many others shattered with grief in its wake.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 800,000 people commit suicide every year worldwide, and depression is the leading cause of suicide, yet I still hear people making jokes about things like Prozac flippantly.  Whether medication is a solution or not is not the point – depression is no laughing matter.  Breast cancer killed half that many people in 2010 according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  When was the last time you heard a breast cancer joke?

There is an episode of my favorite t.v. show, The Office, that makes commentary on the insensitivity and lack of awareness about depression and mental illness.  In the episode Michael calls a meeting to read out of the “suggestion box” that hadn’t been in use for years.  Michael pulls out a sheet of paper and reads, “We need better outreach for employees fighting depression – Tom.”  Michael (played by another gifted comedic actor, Steve Carell) insists it’s a joke, they don’t even have a Tom in the office – until Phyllis reveals that Tom did work there years ago, in accounting, and shot himself.

People with depression often feel embarrassed, less than, and are many times in denial of their own condition.  When suffering from undiagnosed OCD that led to serious depression at 19 years old, no one even believed I could be depressed.  I smiled, was pleasant, and as I had been my whole life, an optimist.  I wore a mask because I was afraid of what people would think about me. However, as most people that have experienced a mental illness at some point in their life will tell you, you can only hide for so long.  Eventually untreated mental illness will cause your world to fall apart.  That’s why it is so crucial for people to feel safe and unjudged in regards to depression and other mental illnesses, so they can get the support they need early on.  Mental illness can happen to anyone, and will affect everyone at some point in their lives either directly or indirectly.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, I’ve heard people argue that depression should or should not be classified as a disease, similar to cancer. That is just semantics, and beside the point.  Depression is an illness of the brain and it can be treated in various ways.  However what is crucial in the collective fight against depression is that we begin to talk about it as if we were talking about any other illness.  Take away the shame, and the insults, and replace it will empathy and questions.

People with Depression often feel ashamed, worthless, and flawed.  They feel like a burden and maybe the world would be better off without them.  This isn’t just pessimism, this is the thinking of a very ill brain.  I believe that because he led an extraordinary life, people will be able to say, “Robin Williams was a good man, a kind man, a talented man and he suffered from the illness that is depression, like me.”  

Depression is not a flaw of character, and it may have taken the death of one of the greatest characters of all time for us to really see that.