“But They Seemed So Happy”: Robin Williams and the Myth of Visible Depression

Dear Reader,

When I think of Robin Williams, I think of his amazing energy, his ability to captivate audiences with every gesture, and his tremendous body of work. This is partly why it was so shocking to learn that Mr. Williams passed away on Monday as a result of hanging himself. After hearing the news, my first thought was, “Why?” I then had to catch myself and backtrack. When someone who is rich and famous kills themselves, some question the validity of the person’s suffering by stating, “But they seemed so happy.” As anyone who has been through mental illness knows, though, it doesn’t matter the external circumstances of said person. Happiness is something that can only be achieved through within. If you are depressed, you are depressed. Depression does not discriminate against age, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, culture, or zip code. A person can have every desirable material possession in the world and yet, if they do not see the point in living, still feel entirely alone and lost. This does not make them ungrateful or selfish. It means that they are suffering from an extremely painful and entirely valid mental illness.

Another equally problematic perception is the idea that depression must be visible to be real. That is, if someone is to be “really” depressed (as opposed to just faking it), they must wear dark clothing and curl themselves into a ball in the corner of their room and drink black coffee while they contemplate the emptiness of it all. While this may be some people’s version of depression, it is not everyone’s. You can still have a job and be depressed. You can still have a family and be depressed. You can still laugh and smile and be depressed. You can still be a legendary entertainer with an astonishing career and still be depressed. Being able to put on a happy show does not mean that your internal life matches the expression on your face. Some of the happiest-looking individuals can have some of the saddest souls.

While saying this does not bring Mr. Williams back, it is an important idea to remember. Give your light to everyone you see, because you never know what dark paths they travel through when they are alone.




16 Responses to “But They Seemed So Happy”: Robin Williams and the Myth of Visible Depression

    • Thanks for reading. I hope that this post can be a small point in a larger discussion about mental illness and the false myths behind it.

  1. Inner conflict is an amazingly potent driving force, but when everything has been achieved, when all the boxes have been checked, and you find yourself standing on the summit, it can turn into something else. I can only imagine how difficult it is finding something to look forward to when you’ve accomplished as much as Robin Williams. All that energy turned inward was likely too much. He will be missed.

  2. I agree people who don’t suffer depression never know or understand. RIP Robin Williams. I will miss his energy and ability to make others laugh. Thank you for giving your insight into a matter people often want to sweep under the rug. The tears of a clown. (An old song – many years ago).

  3. Thank you for taking the time to write about this. Most people that have never suffered through depression don’t know the hardship that it entails. It’s not just something you can snap out of. While Robin Williams made me laugh when I was down and got me through some tough times with his amazing acting ability, I hope this shines more light on the topic of depression. I wish I/We (his fans) could have been there for him through his depression just liked he helped me through mine and possibly others also.

    • That’s another one of those myths: that someone can just “wish away” depression. But, if we could do that, I’m pretty sure no one in this world would have depression.
      It’s also interesting to point out that strange one-way relationship between an artist and their audience. Of course the audience can give financial support by buying tickets, but, especially with Williams, what he gave to his audience was life-changing to many.

  4. In the past several decades, it has been discussed in all forms of media that depression, signs of depression are not always visible. The crying clown, etc. From the Veterans who return from war, to the lonely teenager, the isolated widow or widower, or the elderly shut-in … suicides will always happen. If a star does it, it just sheds light upon a part of life via the media. All the untold news about all the others, all the other people worldwide. If a person chooses that route, very rarely, and that is fact, very rarely can that person be talked out of it. Sooner or later, it will come to pass. There is no panacea. Not even therapy or prescribed medication or true love by a spouse. As Robin Williams had all three ….,

    • I agree that the past is the past and that loved ones left behind should not blame themselves for anything they did or did not do prior to the suicide.

  5. Wise words indeed. I’ve never suffered from real depression – I’ve been low of course, but I realise that’s completely different and usually linked to recognisable (and if you’re lucky, temporary) life circumstances. I have the greatest sympathy for those who suffer with this debilitating condition.

    Robin Williams was such an amazing talent, and by all accounts a lovely person too. Great as a comic, but some of his film roles were truly outstanding – Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, and Insomnia spring to mind as personal favourites. The world is a little bit darker with his passing. And how awful for his family – how do you cope when a loved one takes their own life?

    And yet, if this tragedy helps promote an honest and open discussion about depression, and means others get more help, support and understanding, then maybe some good will yet come of it. I hope so.

    • My thoughts exactly. As painful as it is to think of his loved ones during this time, I have to have hope that this can start a large discussion on mental health and the complications that come with it. I don’t think Mr. Williams would have ever wanted to hurt his family by his suicide. If anything, he might have thought that he was helping them. Depression can really trick the mind.

  6. ” I wish that I could be/yes I wish that I could be/I wish that I could be/Richard Corey…”
    “Richard Corey went home last night/And put a bullet in his head”

    For those old enough to remember it, the Beatles put the poem ” Richard Corey” to music. I can’t remember the name of the poet but the poem covers all of the wonderful farewell written above.

    As a person living with Bi-polar disorder, which is what I believe our beloved Robin Williams also lived with (believe me., I know the signs). As sad as it sounds, 63 was old in our ranks. Virginia Woolfe was in her early fifties when she drowned herself, Judy Garland was only in her early 40’s when she died of an ‘accidental overdose’ of drugs and alcohol .

    I wholeheartedly agree with the above blog entry. It is not only written with great sensitivity but the author is a good writer. I liked and admired Robin Williams – his passing is a great loss.

    The problem with depression is that the entire world can tell you that they love you but you still can’t feel it. You get to a place where you unplug from the real world and all that is left is the act, It alone can free you from your intolerable feelings of hopelessness and despair. The worst part is the numbness. You can be doing your favorite activity but it means nothing to you. I always hope that other people don’t have these experiences but they do. As the author of this blog points out – depression isn’t the person’s ‘fault’ and it isn’t always visible. There are ways to live with it and I do but I’m lucky to have great medical and psychological help with it.

    Good bye Robin, I hope that you are at peace now. It was wonderful to have you with us for as long as you could manage and I hope now you know how greatly loved and admired you were…

    • That’s a good point. Depression can take the joy you once felt for an activity and rob you of any feeling. This can be very frustrating, as you know that the real you enjoys the activity, but you just can’t get those feelings of joy back.

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