The recent loss of Robin Williams to suicide rocked the country and the world. However, for a subsection of the population his death held special meaning. This is the percentage of the population dealing with depression and other mental illness. For this group, the death of a major celebrity who seemed to live the American dream hit deeper than most.
Born in 1951, Robin Williams truly lived the American dream. He started his career as a stand-up comedian in California in the 70’s, quickly getting his big break as an actor in Mork & Mindy in 1978. The acting and voice career that followed including blockbusters such as Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Jumanji, to name only a few. Across his career, Robin Williams won an Academy Award, two primetime emmy’s, six golden globes, and four Grammy awards. And this is not an exhaustive list of Mr. Williams accomplishments.
What wasn’t so well known about Mr. Williams was that he suffered from depressive illness throughout his life. When the news broke about Robin Williams’ suicide, everyone who loved his work was shocked and saddened. How could such a successful actor take his own life? It is said that only those who have suffered from depression can truly understand the thoughts, emotions and suffering that accompany depression. In that way, those suffering from depression are uniquely poised to understand how such a man could decide that life was no longer worth living. Depression causes fatigue, loss of energy, depressed mood (sadness, worthlessness), problems with thinking, concentration and decision making, and thoughts of suicide, amongst other symptoms. It has been described that grief or a bad mood is to depression as breathing hard during a sprint is to having chronic asthma. In a period of major depression, the feelings simply don’t go away, no matter what a person does. This is what makes people think about, and turn to, self-harm and suicide.
Those who have long-term or treatment-resistant depression are in a uniquely difficult position. Although there is no specific definition to accompany these, long term depression can be diagnosed when depression continues long after treatment or episodes reoccur throughout a person’s life or for long periods of a person’s life. Treatment-resistant depression is named such when a wide variety of treatment options have been tried to no success. Those with long-term or treatment resistant depression may turn to drugs and alcohol, as was the case with Mr. Williams. When treatment fails and the pain of depression outweighs hopes for the future and the desire to live, suicide occurs.
This is where dealing with celebrity suicide becomes more than just hearing about a high-profile death. Those who are depressed have to wonder, “If someone like Robin Williams can’t hack it, how can I?” Robin Williams was loved the world over, had an excellent thriving career, a loving family, and millions of dollars to get the best treatment necessary. Mr Williams had access to the absolute top doctors and treatment options, be they medical, medicinal or therapeutic. Very few people in the world can say that, let alone the average American. Those who are depressed may have a very difficult time hearing about and dealing with celebrity deaths due to this very fact. If these people, who appear to have everything in life cannot deal with depression or get through depression, what chances does the normal person have? What those who are depressed may not realize is that every case of depression is uniquely different, as every person is uniquely different. What many people did not know after Robin Williams’ suicide was how his specific case evolved. Today it is public knowledge that Mr. Williams had suffered with addictions to cocaine early in his career, as well as alcoholism throughout his life. In addition, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was suffering from severe depression directly prior to his death.
The question remains: Should the media cover and publicize suicide? The rule of the day is that only high profile suicides are publicized. It is very rare that suicide in the general population will be publicized, and usually that is only when the facts of the suicide are unique or “interesting” to the public, such as someone stepping in front of a train. So what is the difference between the loss of one life and the loss of another? Journalists are ruthless about telling the world about the lives of celebrities, so why not their deaths? They believe that we are interested in hearing about all the gossip, whether good or bad. However, we do know that after a celebrity suicide there are inevitably “copycat” suicides; the rate of suicide in certain areas or amongst certain groups predictably rises. Those who are depressed think about their chances of recovery and inevitably their thoughts go to the fact that the celebrity couldn’t recover, so how can they? It may also simply remind people that there is an “out” to the disease.
So what is the answer? Do we publicize celebrity suicide or simply report it as death? Do we publicize suicide in the general population? Because non-celebrity suicides are not interesting to the general population, editors generally stay away from them, citing that it is out of respect for the families of those who have died. The unfortunate problem with this logic is that it covers up the prevalence of suicide, and therefore mental illness as a whole. Are we doing ourselves a disservice as a population by publicizing when people die of AIDS or breast cancer, but not from mental illness? Perhaps more interest and understanding would be given to mental illness if we publicized every death, not simply those of celebrity suicide.
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