Why Couldn’t We See The Tears Of The Clown?
Every Thursday starting in the fall of 1978, I had one thing on my mind: Mork and Mindy was on tonight! I often used television as an escape from a not very happy childhood, and the wild and unpredictable humor of Robin Williams was cathartic. When he started making movies, I did everything I could to see them all.
Robin Williams soon became one of the most-recognized comedians in the world, on par with the likes of Bill Cosby and George Carlin. He brought joy to millions with movies like Good Morning Vietnam and Mrs. Doubtfire. He also sought to raise morale for the military with dozens of USO excursions. What none of us knew was that Robin Williams’s ability to make us laugh was fueled by hiding behind humor to avoid his inner demons.
According to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, over 170 million people in the world suffer from some form of depression. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates one in four adults in the US suffer from some form of mental illness. Mood disorders such as depression are the third-most-common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both children and 18-44 year old adults. One in 17 Americans live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
Robin Williams had been fighting bi-polar disorder for years. He masked his pain with the laughter of others. Many people who are bi-polar find ways to hide their suffering because they don’t want others to know they are hurting. Attitudes toward mental illness are getting better around the world, but we are a long way from removing the fear and stigma it carries.
In a previous post, I discussed a lot of the issues facing someone with a mental illness after a friend from college committed suicide. A sad fact of mental illness is that many people do destructive things to themselves rather than seek treatment. There are many myths about bi-polar and other disorders that complicate the already difficult road people suffering must walk.
The tragedy of people like Robin Williams is that they throw themselves into trying to do things for other people to hide from their own pain. It seems easier to try to fix someone else’s pain than attend to your own. It provides a feeling of strength to help others, which helps offset the perception of weakness having a mental disorder can bring.
Very often, people with bi-polar disorder feel alone in their struggle, that no one can understand or help. How sad it is that someone like Robin Williams had so many people who loved who he was, yet he felt like no one was there for him? If we could remove the stigma around bi-polar disorder so people would not be so leery about seeking treatment, how many people could we save?
This could be compared to what attitudes used to be about other diseases, such as cancer. Doctors could do very little for cancer patients until very recently, so a diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence. Early on, some people even feared it could be contagious. Very often, friends and family would distance themselves from the afflicted person mainly out of fear and lack of understanding. Now, there are hosts of treatments, support groups and other resources so people don’t have to battle alone.
The very idea that someone has a mental disorder is troubling to those who have not experienced it. And when people are confused and afraid, they often retreat to a safe place away from the problem. So, between the sufferer withdrawing from the world and the world doing the same in return, it is a wonder anyone gets treatment at all.
Thankfully, times are changing. Celebrities are going public with their personal battles against mental illness, making it more acceptable to talk about and seek treatment. Slowly, more people realize that there is help and support.
We can’t bring Robin Williams back. We can remember him and honor his struggle by being more open about mental health. We can also petition the entertainment industry stop depicting mental health issues incorrectly, fueling the fire for many to not seek treatment for fear of being seen as “one of those wackos.” Most of all, we can reach out to those near us who are suffering rather than pulling away or acting like the issue is just “mood swings.” If Robin Williams ever brought you any joy at all, I hope you will use that to have the courage to reach out to someone close to you who may have a mental illness. Your hand may be the one that pulls them from the end.