Depression, suicide and loose talk [Commentary]

Heedless, heartless reactions to Robin Williams' death

August 13, 2014|Susan Reimer

Among the heartfelt tributes, the death of Robin Williams has also drawn what is now a predictable response — people saying stupid and insensitive things about depression and suicide while babbling too long in front of the camera or posting intemperate outbursts on Twitter.

Fox News host Shepard Smith ended a marathon broadcast by calling Williams a "coward," after inviting the audience to imagine raising three children as Williams did.

"And yet, something inside you is so horrible or you're such a coward or whatever the reason that you decide that you have to end it. Robin Williams, at 63, did that today," he said.

Also predictably, he later apologized profusely in a statement, saying the words "just came out of my mouth."

"Diff'rent Strokes" star Todd Bridges said Williams was "selfish" and set a bad example for his children because he had demonstrated that suicide was the only way out of tough times. He apologized, too.

Rush Limbaugh said Williams took his own life because of his "leftist" world view.

"It's one of pessimism, and darkness, sadness. They're never happy, are they?" said the radio show host.

He did not apologize.

British comedian Richard Herring tweeted that the suicide was "divine judgement" for the movie "Patch Adams." He didn't apologize either.

The Dandy Goat, an irreverent opinion site, concluded that "failure to spend most of the day expressing sadness about the death of acting great Robin Williams is a clear sign you have serious emotional issues" and need to have your "head checked."

And Chris Fields, the deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, tweeted within an hour of the announcement of William's death, "how very 80's. Want an economy like we had in 80's under Reagan…Vote @Jeff4Gov tomorrow in the primary."

When Twitter unleashed its scorn upon Mr. Fields, he refused to back down and said real people had been crushed by the policies of "guilt-ridden celebrity libs."

Williams was a great talent and by all accounts a kind and decent man who counted among his fans members of several generations — from the kids who grew up with "Mork and Mindy" to the kids who grew up with the genie in "Aladdin."

His death is a mystery because suicide is always a mystery. The dead cannot explain.

His brilliance, his success, the love that flowed toward him — these facts confound us. Didn't all this good fortune give him happiness?

The pain of his wife and children, the sadness of his close friends. This makes us angry. How could he? How could he do this to them?

The profound depression from which Williams suffered — he had recently returned to rehab for what's assumed to be related treatment — is also a mystery to those who have never lived with what Winston Churchill called "the black dog," his constant companion. It is not just a bit of the blues. It is not just a bit of a funk. It is a room without light.

Dick Cavett wrote vividly about depression in a pair of essays for the New York Times years ago, describing the illness' terrible authority. The voice of depression booms in your head, telling you your life is meaningless, your memories of happiness a delusion. And you believe it because the voice of depression is the only voice you can hear.

Mr. Cavett also wrote about the danger of suicide among those suffering with depression. Ironically, he wrote, those at their lowest point are unlikely to kill themselves. It is simply too much work. Those who are on the upswing — able to organize their thoughts toward a purpose — are at the gravest danger.

Perhaps Williams had improved just enough to act, but not enough to see the light.

And finally, Williams immediately became the poster boy for everybody who has something to say about mental illness — the need for more awareness, better treatment, the need for compassion for sufferers and those close to them.

Worthwhile goals, of course. But can you imagine his comic riff on this? It would have been epic.

Susan Reimer's columns appear on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


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