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Robin Williams and the Specter of Mental Illness

Please note: We are not medical professionals; Please do not take anything contained in our blog as medical advice. If you need help, please contact your physician or other appropriate medical professional.

Over the past several days, the internet has been abuzz with memories of Robin Williams. Comedian, actor of stage and screen, and father, Robin Williams’ forty year career was marked with years of brilliant performances. However, unbeknownst to many of his fans, Mr. Williams suffered greatly at the hands of an invisible enemy – Mental illness, in the form of bipolar disorder.

Van Gogh also suffered from mental illness; Many theorize bipolar disorder.
Van Gogh also suffered from mental illness; Many theorize bipolar disorder.

For many, depression is just a word, with sorrow just a temporary state. For others, depression is all too real, and, too often, misunderstood. However, as Mr. Williams’ death shows, it’s all too easy to appear happy on the surface while suffering deeply underneath. Because mental illness rarely has any sort of outward manifestation, people with mental illness are regularly met with skepticism, even aggression, from even the most well-meaning of people. Additionally, for those who choose to share their experience with mental illness or their feelings, it can be difficult to convey the full meaning of what “I’m depressed” means.

It’s important for appropriate dialogue to happen in the aftermath of tragedies like this one. It’s all too easy to write off suicide as the actions of one person, especially if one doesn’t understand those actions. The first step in any conversation is understanding what it is about.

What is Depression?

Depression can take several forms. Some examples:

  • Major or Clinical depression – This severe form impacts one’s ability to work, sleep, eat… Really, to live. While this can be isolated to a single episode in an individual’s life, more often it occurs several times. It is estimated that approximately 6.7% of American adults suffer from clinical depression, with between 20-25% of adults suffering from an episode of major depression at some point during their lives. This form often occurs in tandem with other psychiatric issues, such as anxiety, and can also be associated with substance abuse.
  • Persistent depressive disorder – This is a depressive episode that lasts 2 years or more, and can fluctuate as far as severity of symptoms. While it can be less severe in terms of its manifestation, it tends to hold on longer, and can occur in an individual with clinical depression as well.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – One of the more common mental disorders, SAD is also known as “seasonal depression.”
  • Bipolar disorder – While bipolar disorder is not purely a depressive condition, it is a combination of elevated periods of happiness, known as manic phases, followed by periods of depression.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of mental illness is how common it is. The National Institute of Mental Health estimated in 2012 that 16 million adults in the United States experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. That’s just under 7% of all American adults. They also estimated that about 9.5% of the adult U.S. population suffers from some form of mood disorder, with 45% of those cases classified as severe.

Depression can be caused by a variety of factors. Genetics are one potential facet, as are environmental conditions. Traumatic experiences, loss, and stress can also bring on symptoms of depression. At their core, though, depression and other mood disorders are disorders of the brain. MRI technology has shown that the brains of individuals with depression appear differently from those that do not suffer from the disorder.

Symptoms of depression vary, but the most common symptoms include persistent negative feelings, including sadness, anxiety, guilt, hopelessness, and helplessness. People suffering from depression may seem to have a short fuse, or be disinterested in things they once enjoyed. They may have difficulty making decisions, feel worthless, or their eating habits may change drastically. In some cases, thoughts of suicide may occur, or even attempts.

Allie Brosh's comic informs about the realities of depression, including feelings of emptiness.
Allie Brosh’s comic, Depression Part Two, explores the realities of experiencing depression, including feelings of emptiness and hopelessness.

Artist Allie Brosh, known for her Hyperbole and a Half web comic, has written a particularly compelling and accurate portrayal of depression and how it feels, titled Depression Part Two. While the entire piece is a worthwhile read for those interested in understanding depression, this quote is particularly useful for those interested in understanding how depression feels:

“I remember being endlessly entertained by the adventures of my toys. Some days they died repeated, violent deaths, other days they traveled to space or discussed my swim lessons and how I absolutely should be allowed in the deep end of the pool, especially since I was such a talented doggy-paddler. I didn’t understand why it was fun for me, it just was. But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren’t the same. I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared. Horse’s Big Space Adventure transformed into holding a plastic horse in the air, hoping it would somehow be enjoyable for me. Prehistoric Crazy-Bus Death Ride was just smashing a toy bus full of dinosaurs into the wall while feeling sort of bored and unfulfilled.  I could no longer connect to my toys in a way that allowed me to participate in the experience. Depression feels almost exactly like that, except about everything.”

How to Help

Mental illness is no less a real disease than any other. Clinician Julie Hanks once said “Telling someone struggling with depression to ‘cheer up’ or telling an individual with an anxiety disorder to ‘stop worrying so much’ is like telling a person with diabetes to simply ‘lower your blood sugar level.’” But how do we help? Those living with depression and other mental illnesses cannot and should not be made to shoulder their burden entirely on their own.

In dealing with mental illness, each individual is totally different. Small wonder, as each of us deals with our feelings and lives differently. However, there are a few things that are universal when helping an individual who may be suffering from a depressive episode.

First and foremost, remember that they are suffering from a condition. As in the quote from Ms. Hanks, we don’t tell individuals with diabetes to just get over their blood sugar issues – That would be very silly, indeed!

This Understanding Depression detailed chart includes information about symptoms, treatment, and more.
This Understanding Depression detailed chart includes information about symptoms, treatment, and more.

Secondly, listen and keep an open mind. We all want to help with words, but sometimes the most helpful approach is one without any. Some individuals suffering from mental disorders may not have the opportunity to speak openly about their feelings, and just listening can make a huge difference.

Third, keep in mind a few things not to say! Even those with the best of intentions will sometimes find themselves wanting to tell those suffering from mental illness to “change their attitude” or “just put on a smile,” but these statements can be damaging for those suffering from the disorder.

Finally, never forget that they are the same person they were before the disorder or episode became apparent. Simply offering your support and letting them know that your opinion of them has not changed can be effective.

There are many resources for those who are or have a loved one suffering from mental illness. A few that we found that are noteworthy;

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