Like many of you, I realized that we had lost Robin Williams when posts started appearing on my Facebook newsfeed. At first I found myself in disbelief and started checking the sources of these posts and found some that were reputable. And then I was surprised by the profound sadness I felt at the loss of this great artist who both inspired us to seize the day and made us laugh at the follies of our human condition beginning with the comedy Mork and Mindy through Good Morning Vietnam and so many later works that I want to go back and watch. I remembered interviews on The Tonight Show where humor both witty and barbed would just seem to flow out of him. I grieved that there would be no more of any of these and that the life of the person who brought us these sparkling gems had been snuffed out.
I’ve been reflecting on this tension in which so many artists walk between genius and depression. Is it a special sensitivity to the world in all its wonder and pain that somehow enables a person to brilliantly capture both, in a movie, a painting, a comedy routine, a musical work? In Williams case, his depression has been connected to cocaine use. One wonders if the pain experienced in life for someone like Williams led to efforts to escape that pain, if for a while. Having a more even-keeled (and perhaps less creative!) personality, I cannot judge but I do grieve that in the darkness, Williams turned to the finality of death.
Do we understand how real and profound clinical depression can be and how helpless someone can feel in the throes of it? I don’t, except from the descriptions of others who have experienced this that has led me to recognize that this is not something you just “get over”. Nor is it something to be ashamed of. What depression is is a condition for which there is help and support–there are medical and emotional support communities available.
Williams death should encourage us to be alert for those who may be considering suicide. If people talk about taking their life or that the world would be better without them, we should take it seriously. Asking a person about whether they have considered taking their lives and what steps they’ve taken won’t make them do it. It will say that you “get it” and are interested enough to care. Asking them to agree not to act on those thoughts until you can go with them to get help may give them something to hang onto. And going with them to get that help says there is one person who doesn’t think this is shameful, there is one person who thinks there is still life worth living and who believes that when they can’t believe it themselves. I’ve gone through training to recognize both warning signs and how to respond to these with other ministry professionals on the campus where I work. The folks who provide this training have put some very helpful material at this website. It includes information about local and national resources to help.
One is too many, whether that is Robin Williams, a family member, or a fellow student or work colleague. Rest in peace, Robin Williams.