Hump Day: ‍Williams tragedy reminds us depression can happen to anyone

Hump DaHump Dayy
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014
Moncton Times & Transcript
Editorial section

Some weeks, column ideas come easily. Someone rings my doorbell and runs. Someone is rude to me. I do something stupid. I was stressing out about a column idea this week and started writing one of those ‘where has the summer gone’ columns out of desperation when the news of actor and comedian Robin ‍Williams’ death popped up on my Facebook newsfeed like some terrible nightmare.

Initial news reports are that he committed suicide. He had a long history of substance abuse and depression.

I didn’t know him, of course, but he made me laugh more often than anyone. What an awful irony that he was able to please so many people through his comedy and acting while at the same time feeling so utterly hopeless that he took his own life.

Mental illness can affect anyone. The rich. The poor. The big. The small. The tall. The short. The old. The young. It doesn’t discriminate. It can hold anyone in its vicious grip. And while society has come a long way in recognizing mental illness as a genuine disease, it still has a long way to go.

My own family has been deeply affected by depression. My paternal grandmother suffered from depression and there are several of her relatives who have it today. Depression certainly isn’t a new discovery. People were being diagnosed years ago, but using different terminology and treatments that we’d consider crude today.

Robin Williams
Robin Williams

A while back, I’d looked up a number of death certificates of relatives online through the provincial archives. Family depression issues certainly didn’t start with my grandmother. They were passed down to her from further up the family tree – and probably started way before proper records were maintained.

For example, the death certificate of my great-great-grandmother Julienne Robichaud (my grandmother’s grandmother) states that she’d suffered from “recurrent mania” for 50 years and that it contributed to her eventual death. From the location of her death – the Provincial Hospital in Saint John – it was also clear that she was institutionalized at the time of her passing in May 1923. I can only imagine what kind of place it was 91 years ago. Makes me shiver just to think about it.

And since she’d suffered from this so-called “recurrent mania” for 50 years, that meant she had documented (and I assume severe) mental health issues since the 1870s, hardly an era when there was a lot of understanding or meaningful treatment.

But with all we know and the strides we’ve made in openness about depression, it still astounds us when a celebrity like Robin ‍Williams takes his own life. He would have all the money in the world to help himself. He could have the best treatment. The best doctors. The best medication. The best support. But sometimes it just isn’t enough. Depression is an illness just like anything else. We don’t blink an eye when someone rich and famous dies of cancer or a heart attack. But depression? Even I have to admit I shook my head for a minute, wondering how he could not have received the care he needed with all that money, fame and support. The sad fact of the matter is that unless you literally tie someone to a chair and feed them with a spoon, we can’t control someone 24/7.

I’ve known a few people who’ve committed suicide – some well and some not so well. From what I understand from their individual stories, they all suffered from depression and they all planned it. Some had attempted and failed – some more than once. Eventually, though, despite all the support and treatment, that vicious ogre of depression sank in again and they could not be saved from it.

Some want everything hushed. We don’t speak of these things, don’t you know! Actually, the more we talk about it, the more people suffering from depression – and those around them – will recognize the signs and get the help they need. Like everyone, I have my own quirks and issues, but I’m so thankful that depression isn’t one of them – at least at this time. I can’t predict the future. And I hope I never have to deal with it. Just hearing that people feel hopeless is painful to me. I’ve never felt hopeless, even when things weren’t going that great – and I hope I never do.

Robin ‍Williams made so many people laugh. I would make sure I recorded his talk show appearances because I knew he would do something crazy that would leave the host and the audience (and me!) in stitches. He raised tens of millions of dollars for the homeless through his Comic Relief charity work with fellow celebrities Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal. He won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, a great movie.

And he also starred in another film that has been my favourite since the day I saw it in a cinema in 1989 – Dead Poets Society. I was engrossed throughout the movie. The scenery. The friendships. The betrayal. The death scene twist. The heartache afterwards, including an emotional scene where Mr. ‍Williams cries at the loss of his student from suicide. Today, his family, friends and fans are doing the same, but this time in real life.

I also give him credit for bringing cable TV into the Cormier household in the late 1970s. With talk of “Nanu! Nanu!” everywhere in school and Mork and Mindy not being available on non-cable TV, I remember convincing my parents that my brother, sister and I were practically abused children because we couldn’t watch the show. Eventually, we wore them down and Mork and Mindy – and Robin ‍Williams – became part of our lives.

Wherever you are, Robin ‍Williams, I hope you’ve found peace and can laugh again – and thanks for the cable TV.

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