It’s an odd analogy, but follow along: depression eats away at its victims, like cancer, slowly withering away both body and soul. Neither are preventable. Both are life-changing, if not deadly.
None of the fame or riches of Robin Williams, the comedic genius of television, film and stage, were able to save him from his depression. His death this week, which authorities say was a suicide, is a shocking reintroduction to this widespread and unfairly stigmatized disease.
The biggest takeaway from Williams’ death is the reminder that depression can happen to anyone — the wealthy, the famous, the beloved. There is no template. If you’re human, if you live, you’re susceptible.
In almost every way, Williams was eternally human. He was a father, a divorcee, a married man, a recovering heart patient and an addict with steep money problems. But he also made us laugh like almost no one else in the last four decades. His suicide is lots of things, all of them shocking and sad. Those of us who only know him from his roles will likely never learn the intimate details of his death. That is, of course, as it should be.
On Wednesday, long-time friends of Williams told The Los Angeles Times that the actor’s demeanor had changed in recent months. They saw the tell-tale signs of a man struggling with his thoughts and, as we’ve learned this week, overwhelming concerns about his career and his finances. This summer, Williams entered rehab in Minnesota.
“He started to disconnect,” comedian Rick Overton told The Times.
“You could just tell something was off,” Williams’ friend Steven Pearl said. “He seemed detached … He didn’t seem like his usual self. My fiance and I were like, ‘Is he OK?’ I didn’t know it would get this dark.”
Yet, it did.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. In 2011, 39,518 Americans took their own life; a great many more — more than 487,000 — were treated for suicide-related injuries. By any metric, across virtually all demographics, depression and suicidal thoughts can occur, and often do.
Help is available. That’s the good news. Every suicide attempt doesn’t have to end as Williams’ did. If nothing else, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and talk to a trained counselor.
In death, Williams has provided the spark for yet another (and likely brief) surge in interest in suicide prevention. That’s part of the problem: today’s surge turns into tomorrow’s wane, and soon our healthy discussions about warning signs and treatment options become boring and stale. Those who need help — our friends, our family members, our co-workers — too often don’t get it. We must change that.