Robin Williams and mental health

Within minutes after its announcement, the general reaction to Robin Williams’ death on Facebook was surprise. How could a comedian commit suicide? How could a man who smiled all the time be mentally ill? How can anyone rich and famous want to end his life?

Our culture seemed to have the answers. Williams’ family released a statement indicating that he had “been battling severe depression”; several media outlets reported that the cause of death was a suicide. But the assumptions both the traditional media and those on social media were making — equating sadness to depression — indicate how misunderstood mental illness is and why access to treatment still remains an issue.

Assumptions also result in denial. Much like Elsa in Disney’s “Frozen,” “conceal, don’t feel” was my childhood motto. Teachers were asking questions after receiving writing assignments filled with self-hatred, only to receive headshakes as a response. I would fake a smile everyday so I wouldn’t be asked questions. I remember learning about depression in my high-school health class. But that couldn’t be me, though — no, I was just sad. The pain would pass.

But it didn’t. It grew over the years, to the point that some days I couldn’t bring myself out of my bed. UC Berkeley, while a fresh start for me, didn’t do much to alleviate the stress. Many suggested I should read some new books or socialize and exercise, as if I was just having a regular old bad day. It took a failed midterm to bring me to the Tang Center. The pain didn’t disappear, but the healing began.

So many people asked why I didn’t seek help earlier.After all, there were so many helpful resources, from suicide hotlines to the Tang Center, and they all helped me think rationally and helped alleviate some of the pain. But when the Tang Center closes at 5 p.m., the next accessible resource is a suicide hotline. The hardest part was putting myself on the phone and throwing out my life story to some stranger’s judgment. But it’s not just the fear of confiding a life story to a stranger. In the end, that person isn’t part of your life. After that call, that person won’t be there to get you back on your feet — that’s all on you.

We keep on hearing how mental health is “stigmatized.” But what does that word actually mean?

In the past week, Robin Williams has been labelled as a “coward,” “selfish,” and his death attributed to his “leftist worldview;” his daughter received so much hate that she quit the Internet. Do we call a person selfish if he or she dies of cancer? No. Then why do we associate “cowardly” and “selfish” with depression-linked suicide? Let’s put it this way: Do we get let off a midterm because we’re too depressed to do it or if we have an anxiety disorder? Probably not. But if we get an appendix removed? Possibly, depending on the professor. Depression is not the same as sadness; sadness is an emotion and one of the many symptoms of depression. Depression is a mental illness, linked to both hormone imbalance and different brain structure that results in feelings of hopelessness.

Indications of suicide includetalking about it and saying goodbye to loved ones, but individuals who don’t depict such warning signs are equally susceptible to depression. People who smile and laugh don’t escape the repercussions of mental illness; if anything, they’re better at hiding it. With 30 percent of college students suffering from depression, we need to start categorizing mental illness as an actual illness, not a feeling. Characterizing suicide as selfish and those affected as weak, crazy or violent only allows it to remain untreated.

Despite Robin Williams having all the money in the world and UC Berkeley students being so intelligent, our culture is ill equipped to deal with mental illness. The Berkeley bubble — or “Caveman mode” as my friend calls it — is so easily accepted. “Don’t text me, I have three midterms.” “I’m studying, can’t talk to anyone this week.” It’s understandable, but it’s toxic. Robin Williams was one of 30,000 Americans to commit suicide and one of 20 million to suffer from depression. The numbers convey the message: We can’t expect people to run to us for help. We need to do the running ourselves. Check up on your loved ones. Ask them if they want to talk. Tell them you’re there for them. While talking with someone won’t cure their mental illness, it will provide them with the emotional support to seek help.

Some have pointed out — and rightfully so — that the death of a celebrity shouldn’t be the start of mental-health discussion. It’s a conversation that we need to have continuously. Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and now Robin Williams. When are we, as a society, going to admit that mental illness kills people?

List of resources:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK

Tang Counseling and Psychological Services: 510-642-9494

Online Chatroom:

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