Robin Williams’s death has prompted an avalanche of comment about depression and suicide, most of which has been sympathetic, celebrating what he generously gave the world through his art, but some of it has been blindly judgmental. When depression is ignorantly derided as a bad lifestyle choice, being too left wing according to Rush Limbaugh, and suicide is branded cowardice on major news outlets, it’s very clear that the stigma needs to be confronted. That kind of shaming is precisely what prevents people from speaking up and seeking help for a shockingly widespread condition. No one with a broken leg ever got better by someone ridiculing and demeaning them, so if those who speak ill of the dead are sincere, what are they hoping to achieve?
When one in seven Australians will experience depression in their lifetime and an average of six Australians committing suicide every day, I’d say it’s not something we can afford to be ignorant about. Up to 80 percent of people with depression won’t seek help, which no doubt keeps the alcoholism statistics high.
Just about all of us would have been touched by these things in some way. In my case, depression runs in the family. The paternal grandfather I never met took his own life after a long battle with depression and decades of pain from a World War II bullet wound. I’ve been fortunate to get through several episodes of depression from age 17 that included daily suicidal thoughts. I had to sit my first round of Year 12 exams in a psych ward, but fortunately I was able to get the help I needed and I just happened to speak up at the right time. Had I felt too ashamed by the stigma of depression, maybe I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.
There is nothing exceptional about my will power and I consider myself lucky that my brain chemistry has allowed me to keep functioning and creating. I’ve been extremely lucky to have people around who can listen without judgement. Many of the people I count as friends and inspirations happen to have survived or continue to suffer from depression. I don’t consider them or myself lesser people for the things we’ve endured. Facing depression requires humility and an understanding that it can happen to anyone.
My favourite Robin Williams scene is where he asks his students in Dead Poets Society “what will your verse be?” The verse so many of use need to hear is not one of judgement, but of acceptance, acknowledgment and help.