I was as stunned as anyone when I heard about the death of Robin Williams.
My first thought? Too young — far too young. Only 63. Especially now that 60 is the new 40.
And then came the even more distressing news: suicide, after a long struggle with severe depression.
What? Robin Williams, suicidally depressed? With all that comedic genius, all that wild laughter, all that seemingly innate joyful exuberance?
It seems incomprehensible.
Besides, we might add, what does someone like Robin Williams have to be depressed about? A person with all his riches and fame, the enduring respect of his peers, and the adoration of millions worldwide, has no earthly reason to be depressed.
Unless you understand the dark and fearful reach of depression.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Depression isn’t just “having a bad day.” It’s not something that a person can just snap out of, like a child with a tantrum.
Depression is an illness, every bit as much as heart disease or cancer is an illness.
Allow me to say it again: depression is an illness.
For those of you who may be poo-pooing the idea, thinking that depression is nothing more than being sad, here’s a fact to chew on: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depression is the cause of over two-thirds of the 37,000 reported suicides in the U.S. each year.
Which means that every year, more than 24,000 people experiencing depression end up taking their own lives.
The fact is, depression is a severe condition with life-altering and potentially life-threatening consequences. We need only look at Robin Williams as proof of that.
So what exactly is depression? Far from being just a temporary case of the blues, science has proven over and over again that depression is an illness that affects the chemistry of both the brain and nervous system, revealing itself as a persistent feeling of overpowering emptiness, hopelessness, and bone-crushing apathy that has no obvious cause.
Physical symptoms can range far and wide, from overeating to not eating enough, sleeping too much or too little, digestive upset, inability to concentrate, and loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities.
Dismissing depression with a flip “just get over it” is like telling a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing who’s just lost both legs to quit being such a cry baby. I doubt that any decent, feeling person would say such a thing, but some of us don’t think twice about brushing aside depression or belittling those who admit to the condition.
As a society, we insist on blaming and shaming those with mental illness, when we’d never dream of doing the same to someone with a physical illness.
Maybe part of it is the word itself: depression.
Over the decades, it’s become commonplace to use the word as a synonym for feeling everyday unhappiness or disappointment. We’re “depressed” over the Giants losing a game. We’re “depressed” because we gained five pounds or broke a fingernail or had a bad haircut.
Little wonder, then, that those with the genuine illness feel isolated and marginalized.
Another part of the problem is that mental illness is, by its very nature, invisible. You can easily tell if I’ve broken my arm or have the flu or a disorder like Parkinson’s or epilepsy. Cancer and multiple sclerosis and emphysema usually have physical manifestations, so there’s no doubt they’re “real.”
On the other hand, the signs and symptoms of mental illness — except in acute forms such as schizophrenia and psychosis — are difficult to identify and easy to deny.
“It’s all in your head,” they say, as if somehow the mind is, like the Headless Horseman, disconnected from the body.
Yet depression is all too real. I know, because I’ve spent most of my life in or near its sinister shadow. Shame, now abolished, once led me to wear a mask of cheer for the world so no one would know. Pain, now eased, once led me close to that terrible precipice that Robin Williams plummeted over. We will probably never fully understand the reasons behind his desperation. What we can do is use his tragic death to begin a national discussion about the issues of depression and mental illness, which have been buried too long in a shroud of denial.
Perhaps that will be Robin Williams’ greatest legacy.
Joan Merriam lives in Nevada City.