Robin Williams died Monday. When you read this years from now, everyone will remember his legacy and his illustrious career. He was one of the rare and unique actors who could make you cry both from laughing and from anguish, and his talent will be greatly missed. Right now, there’s only shock. Shock, not just that he died, but that he took his own life. I’ve thought about it all day and then some. I’ve felt an incredible sadness that I don’t normally feel when a famous figure passes. Here was a man, who understood the secret, that laughter really is the best medicine, and still he lost to the monster of depression. What a sad, tragic end to a life that inspired.
This is heavy, I know, but mental illness is something that we need to talk about, Blue. For two reasons. One, it’s in your blood. Depression is a parasite on your family tree. It’s there, and we’re going to talk about it because it has left deep, deep scars on your family. Myself included.
I hope you never experience it firsthand, but there is one thing I want to make clear. If you do, you will never have to deal with depression alone. We’re going to talk about it, starting right now. Depression is not something anyone should ever feel ashamed of. That’s what it wants, because when you’re not talking about it to others, then it’s talking to you without any filters. Telling you that you’re alone. You’re tired. That nobody cares. That you’re not worth their time. You don’t have anything to offer. It’s a monster, made even more monstrous by the false presumption that it’s something people just need to get over.
We also need to talk about mental illness in a larger sense, Blue. A cultural sense. I hope things are different when you read this letter, but right now, our culture sucks at talking about mental illness. There’s a shame to it, a reluctance to admit something is wrong because it implies you’ve done something wrong. People don’t hesitate at all to mention the heart medication they’re on, but Zoloft? Prozac? Effexor? Those are going to raise some eyebrows.
To make matters worse, people aren’t good at recognizing signs of problems in others. And when they do, the response is usually something along the lines of “Seek help.” Which, to be frank, is just lazy. Let me illustrate this. Imagine you have a friend deep in a cave. For some reason, you’re wearing night vision goggles so you can see everything, but your friend doesn’t have night vision goggles. He’s stumbling around, fumbling over stalagtites with his hands flaying around trying to do the jobs his eyes can’t do at the moment. He can’t see, buy you can. What do you do? Do you just walk over to him, and say, “Go find some light.” No. Of course not! You grab your friend by the hand and at least, at the very least, lead him to that tiny ray of brightness he needs to figure out where to go next. The same goes for someone dealing with depression. Don’t point them in the direction they need to go. Walk with them, and understand that it might be a long walk.
Another thing. It’s very easy to think of mental illness like we do physical illness. This is how we handle maladies. There’s a problem. You get it treated. And then it’s gone. Depression does not work like that. It does not come in fits. There is a HUGE difference between feeling depressed and dealing with depression, and the only person that understands that is the person going through it. It’s a lonely road. It’s a LONG road. Often, the struggles last a lifetime, and this is hard for people to understand. Empathy can only last so long, and then very quickly it becomes, “What’s wrong with them?”, “Why can’t they just get over it?”, “They have so much to be thankful for.”
They’re right, by the way. There is a lot to be thankful for. The world is full of life, beauty and opportunity. That’s the order of things. But remember, depression is a disorder, and things don’t look quite like this to a person who is struggling.
The world is full of struggle. With that in mind, be careful with your words, Blue, because you never know how someone will receive them. All this is to say that if you see someone having a hard time, don’t simply say, “Seek help.” Do more than that by realizing that you’ve got one verb too many there. Do something else instead.