Robin Williams and the Tipping Point for Public Action on Depression

mork250This story isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Depression, I mean.

Not Robin Williams.

Because depression is the real story here.

Yes, we lost a brilliant human being on Monday. But that bit of news – like all pop culture – will eventually creep into the back pages and the broken links.

Depression, though, will continue to make headlines. All too often for heart wrenching reasons.

I don’t know if there will ever be a cure for depression. If I allow myself to, I both doubt and fear that anyone suffering from mood disorders will ever truly get “better.” At least for long.

But, as a person who has waged his own battles with depression, I don’t often allow myself that kind of thinking.

Instead, I try to concentrate on how we can raise awareness. And sometimes, such as now, I try to write about it.

Somehow I always come to the same conclusion:

We’re far too used to telling the wrong stories.

You see, if we ever hope to make headway towards finding effective treatments for depression – or normalizing it, or making it seem real to the rest of the world – then we have to start collectively creating our own headlines. We have to clutch the power back from the negative and start telling stories about successes. Battles won. Progress made.

We have to quit waiting for the notable sufferers to die.

For anyone to die.

It’s time to look to the cancer survivors and start making a big-time fuss about depression. Walk for a cure. Run for a cure. Relay, race, or paddle for a cure.

Heck, depression being what it is, we could have a leave-the-gloomy-bedroom-and-blink-in-the-sunlight for a cure.


But a big part of this depends on those who have already suffered.

And that has always been the hard part.

For those who have lived with depression, speaking of it can be a scary proposition. A sacrifice. Writing about it in print and online can compound this fear. After all, the written word has an uncomfortable permanence.

Those who have never faced this stigma probably won’t quite understand.

You see, no matter how much we believe the world has changed, there are still people out there who will think less of a person who admits their depression.

Monday night, on live television, FOX News’ Shepard Smith called Williams a coward for ending his life.

A coward.

Can you imagine the howls of outrage had a news anchor maligned a cancer fatality? Or the innocent victim of a car wreck?

It is no wonder that people keep their psychological pain to themselves.

What’s more, the bigger the sphere of influence, the scarier it can be. I definitely know that when I tap the “publish” button on this blog, that there will be more than a few readers who will think I need to “suck it up” or “get on with it.”

I suppose this is one of the few times that it pays to be a relatively small potato.

Even then, though, I’m reasonably sure that it will cause some people to feel wary about hiring me – which, I have to say, is definitely a liability for a person who lives by word of mouth referral.  I’ll tell you this: it ain’t easy.

I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t be the case with cancer or car crashes.  Actually, I’m sure of it.

Here’s the rub, though: like cancer, depression is a disease. A lethal one. And, as anyone who has ever suffered from it can tell you, depression can come at you from any direction – out of the blue. When the smoke clears, you can only hope the damage isn’t too severe.

Suicide is the 7th leading cause of death among men in Canada – 10th overall for both sexes. At over 3,500 victims a year, it’s only slightly behind breast cancer and well ahead of automobile accidents. Meanwhile, an estimated 10% of the Canadian population suffers from some form of depression – so many of them are ticking time bombs.

Yet, as a society, we’re scared to talk about it.

Williams leaves behind an impressive legacy. He was one of the most gifted comedians the planet has ever known. He inspired countless actors and artists and gave the world the incredible gift of joy.

If depression can triumph over a person of Williams’ intelligence, wealth, and success, it’s safe to say that none of us are immune. And when it is pretty much certain that at least one of your family members or loved ones is suffering silently – suffering alone – you can also be sure that you know someone in need of help.

The final addition to Williams’ legacy wasn’t one of comedy, drama, or art – even though it will quietly resonate as much as any of his on-screen successes. Instead it was one of open discourse. Through his death, lives will be saved. Through his loss, many will find the help they so desperately require. You see, while Robin Williams’ voice may have been silenced, so many others have come to life. Today people are talking about depression in ways that it should always be talked about. Not in hushed tones, but in open forums, on television news, and beside water coolers everywhere.

Some will open up for the first time ever. They’ll be honest with their loved ones and themselves in hopes of getting better. Others will reach out to those that they know are in need.

And a whole lot more people will be listening.

Yes, I know, this proactive discourse won’t last long. Probably a matter of days. But the more we talk – the more we have need to talk and to come together – the more these conversations will become the norm. And that, really, is the first big step.

Who knows, maybe that first step will lead to national fundraising runs. Or walks. Or whatever it takes to get attention and monies.

Maybe we’re reaching the tipping point.

With that a distinct possibility, why not organize a day dedicated to mood disorders now? Launch the idea while the impact is still being felt.  A Day Out for Depression, perhaps?

It’s not hard to envision:  A day where communities across Canada come together to walk, bike, run, whatever they want, to raise awareness for mental illness.

Why not?

From the planning side of things, a template has already been made by other organizations:

The Canadian Mental Health Association (or similar local non-profit) would get a tool kit for hosting their own events on the national Day Out. Nationally, a couple of celeb spokespeople would do the news/talk show circuit. Corporate communications funding would be easy to raise.  For legitimate charitable status, you could either piggyback on the CMHA or found your own charitable board.

For those who do this kind of thing, it’s not rocket science.

But it could be so empowering. So galvanizing.

The timing, with so many newspapers and so many news site currently having stories about depression on their front pages, is perfect.

And there is no question that it is surely needed.  Because the message is coming through loud and clear:

We’re all a bit sick of these stories.

Suicide, I mean. Depression.

Not Robin Williams.

Really, at a time like this, we could all use a bit more from Mork from Ork.


Nanu nanu.

It’s time for a change.