As someone who is open about my mental health and the struggles that come with it both in person and in my online writing, when Robin Williams died I knew I wanted to write something. The trouble was, what was there to say that I haven't already said? My Facebook feed was flooded with people expressing their sadness at the loss of a great comedian, someone who lit up a large majority of my generation's childhoods. And then something different began appearing. Discussions of how mental health awareness was much needed within our society. Photos being shared of a candle to be spread across the internet in awareness of depression. My local radio station had an interview with Gail Porter about her own suicide attempt and just how depression makes people feel.
I've written previously about how much stigma still exists around mental health and how we as a society need to start to treat mental health issues as a real and tangible problem. 1 in 4 people within the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. Anxiety and depression are the most common with women being more likely to be treated than men for their mental health. Despite this, British men are 3 times as likely to commit suicide as British women. The UK also has one of the highest self-harm rates in Europe: 400 per 100,000 people. According to WHO depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, with it being characterised by sustained sadness and loss of interest in life and previously enjoyed activities as well as other psychological, behavioural and even physical symptoms.
Depression, which Robin Williams was reportedly seeking treatment for in the weeks leading up to his death, is a serious health problem. It stops you from functioning as you usually would, clouding your judgement and warping your view of the world around you. It can make you unable to sleep or make you sleep too much, make you unable to eat or eat too much: everyone experiences it differently. But the fact remains that it is something that no one brings upon themselves. A common response to someone with depression is to tell them to cheer up or to snap out of it. A recent Buzzfeed article showed how difficult it is for people to reveal mental health issues to employers.
The fact that some twisted people online sent Zelda Williams faked photographs of her dead father further reveals that there is a serious misunderstanding not only about mental health illnesses themselves but also on the profound impact that they have on the family and friends of those who have them. My mother had bipolar and for years I was essentially a carer for her, running our house when she was in a depression, ensuring that she didn't do herself too much damage when she was on a high. While there are organisations out there for young people who are caring for parents with physical illnesses and disabilities, the fact is that due to the stigma around mental health, all too many young people are caring for their parents just as I was without any support.
Losing a loved one is difficult regardless of the circumstances but when it is a suicide, there are all sorts of extra difficulties that are added. You question if you could have done anything to prevent it, if anyone could have. For me, that led to a serious loss of trust in the entire mental health care system in the UK. You are also afraid of telling people how the person died, once again in case of coming up against a prejudiced reaction. Imagine now that not only are you having to deal with the death of a parent, but also that some people think that the way he died removes all right for both him and his family to be treated with respect. Because that's essentially what Zelda Williams has had to face.
But, crucially, I think that Robin Williams' death, as tragic as it is, will serve some good. It has forced the world to sit up and take notice of the fact that depression is not something that just happens to melancholy, lonely people who can easily be ignored: he was a comedian with a loving family. His entire job was to make other people laugh. And yet he had depression. His death can spark off a whole new conversation about the reality of mental health in our world. It could finally make people take a step back and begin to treat mental illness as they would physical illness, by offering help rather than expecting people to solve something as complex as depression or anxiety alone. Robin Williams lit up so many peoples' lives: perhaps in his death he will be able to continue to do so.