Column: Comedian’s death should shine light on depression

The death of Robin Williams highlights the cost and complexity of mental illness

In a drawer in the den lies a non-descript brown folder. It’s a bit tattered around the edges from years of use. Inside, memories are captured in photos. But these aren’t the standard family fare photos. They are signed photos of lead actors my husband Tom came to know when working on the sets of various features, movies of the week, or TV series during two decades in the movie production industry in Vancouver.

One stands out. It is a simple, pleasant photo of the star of the feature Jumanji shot in Vancouver and New Hampshire 20 years ago and released in December 1995. In clear handwriting, the inscription on it reads, “To Tom and family, Love Robin Williams”.

Love, and the laughter of love, symbolized Robin Williams who so tragically died by his own hand last week. Over the years, Tom had worked around many A-list actors and producers of the day – Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cheryl Ladd, Richard Dean Anderson, Farah Fawcett, Henry Winkler, director Frank Marshall – but it was Robin Williams who stood shoulders above all others.

He was, to Tom, a gentleman’s gentleman. Not because he made people laugh or had that legendary ability to be funny. He was courteous, quiet, respectful, and interested in the work and contribution of everyone on set. He had this enormous humility that gave him a rare vulnerability. He was thoughtful and took the time to stop and talk to the crew, get to know them by name, and to show that he genuinely cared about other people’s talents and skills.

So when Williams’ untimely death hit the news last week it was an immense shock and threw a huge spotlight on the evils of depression and the staggering loss of someone so many of us had grown up with since his hilarious Mork & Mindy days.

But the much-loved Oscar-winning (Good Will Hunting) actor battled demons for decades as he suffered severe depression, struggled with substance abuse, and more recently was diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. The 63-year-old has also had to struggle with financial commitments from two divorce settlements that put him in a position of needing to take television and movie roles he really didn’t want to pursue.

His passing is made all the more tragic given that depression is coming out of the closet – mental and brain disorders have always been stigmatized – and there is effective medication and help.

He was, by all accounts, an extremely sensitive child who came to cope with anxiety and loneliness through comedy. His only companions, he once said, were his imagination. That isolation became the seeding ground where he learned to create crazy characters capable of doing things he wouldn’t do himself.

The causes for suicide are far more complex than putting a toe tag on a convenient disease. Williams is once quoted as saying that “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

But the event has certainly sparked a broader debate about depression and mental disorders that need to be taken seriously. Anyone given the right conditions can be vulnerable to depression yet, still, millions caught in its snare say little and struggle alone. Depression is real, common, and can be treated even though its complexities and individual profiles are challenging.  Williams’ death has put the spotlight square on the need to push further to understand what is happening in the brain. With three mental conditions, his despair appeared absolute.

No one can begin to understand the mindset of someone who has committed suicide. At home, we pray that Robin has found peace and that for others living with depression they get the help they need and deserve.