Robin Williams’ Comedy Gave Us Optimism In The Face Of Mental Health

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On this day four years ago, the news of Robin Williams’ death hit headlines leaving the world in mourning.

The comedian who brought so much joy to millions of fans across the globe took his own life aged 63 at his home in California, it was thought Williams was struggling with either severe depression or bipolar disorder at the time.

Providing a statement to CNN following the tragic news, Williams’ media representative Mara Buxbaum confirmed this saying:

He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.

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While the beloved comedian and actor was never knowingly diagnosed with either depression or bipolar disorder, he was open about his mental health issues.

Discussing it on occasion in interviews, while speaking to Terry Gross on his NPR Fresh Air radio show in 2006, Williams spoke about his battle with depression.

Explaining that he does imitate mania for some of his characters on stage and screen, Williams admitted depression affected him differently:

Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.

No clinical depression, no. No. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times.

You look at the world and go, ‘Whoa’. Other moments you look and go, ‘oh, things are okay’.

It is known though Williams had a history of problems with drugs and alcohol checking himself into rehab numerous times throughout his life.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2010, Williams spoke about how his mental health issues could drive him to drink or take drugs.

He described how when he was feeling anxious he would find solace in alcohol:

It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t. I was afraid of everything. It’s just a general all-round ‘arggghhh’. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.

I didn’t take up cocaine again as I knew that would kill me. I’d have thought it would be a case of ‘in for a penny, in for a gram?’

No. Cocaine – paranoid and impotent, what fun. There was no bit of me thinking, ooh, let’s go back to that. Useless conversations until midnight, waking up at dawn feeling like a vampire on a day pass. No.

While we have come a long way when it comes to how we consider the issue of mental health, sometimes people can still struggle to understand how a seemingly happy person could have inner battles like depression.

So you could be forgiven for being shocked by news of the inner turmoil Williams was going through as he was so often associated with comedy, laughter and fun.

In the public eye Williams was a funny man, someone who brought joy and laughter to our lives, he is ‘The Funniest Person of All Time’ in a Ranker poll, which has been viewed over half a million times.

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Many wondered how someone so cheery, with a talent for making people laugh, could have mental health issues.

But he did, as do millions of others with research suggesting one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

We still don’t know what exactly was going through Williams mind and will never know, although recently it came out that he had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia which affected his memory, led to physical stiffness and also personality changes.

However, there are clear signs which point to mental health issues being a major part of his life.

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Again we can’t assume why Williams struggled with depression but it could have been associated with fame and being in the public eye.

BACP member Natasha Page, Integrative Counsellor and Psychotherapist who runs This Is Me Counselling suggested to UNILAD when people become famous they may not be able to develop ways to handle the pressures which come with it.

She said:

I think that many people are impacted on by the pressures of today’s fast paced living, social media, and general pressure to succeed.

This can be heightened for celebrities because they are in the public eye and self image is such a intrinsic part of their role.

This may lead to them being at greater risk of experiencing poor mental health because of the constant pressures they may feel to be or act a certain way.

Sometimes they may not have developed healthy ways of coping with these pressures that they face and may adopt negative ways of trying to cope.

Importantly though, Page also emphasised we must remember ‘celebrities’ are ‘human’ too meaning they are ‘susceptible to poor mental health’ just like any of us.

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Williams’ career as a comedian and his mental health issues could have been associated – a study conducted by Oxford University in 2014 suggested funny men (and women) may be more disposed to ‘high levels of psychotic personality traits’ and thus anxiety and depression.

But according to Dr Mark Widdowson, a psychotherapist and counsellor, it is actually the other way round with those with mental health problems being drawn to comedy as a form of therapy.

Dr Widdowson explained how performing stand-up gives those with mental health problems a sense of control which they are searching for:

A lot of people with mental health illnesses are good at covering them up, they hide it really well and that is why it is often a surprise for us when famous people and comedians for instance reveal their problems.

And because they are being funny it is hard to imagine they are feeling bad inside.

Yet comedy is also absolutely perfect for them because they are not going to be in a situation where they don’t know what to say. They have their sets completely planned out.

On stage they can dish out the teasing which they are normally on the receiving end of.

It gives them a real strong sense of control but get them off the stage, where it is all unpredictable, then they will probably struggle.

This could make sense for Williams; he was bullied throughout his child for being overweight.

Spending a lot of time alone at home, Williams soon realised he could use his talent for making people laugh to gain respect from his peers which is what he also did in his career too.

While fame may have impacted on Williams’ mental health, it also may have affected the way he spoke about it in public.

As seen in his interviews with The Guardian and NPR, Williams spoke about his struggles with anxiety and depression but only ever briefly.

Page explained to UNILAD this may have been because of the outwardly happy persona Williams wanted to have:

It was possibly down to the pressures of being a celebrity and the expectations he may have placed on himself to portray himself as the happy character that people associated him with.

Many clients I work with also find it hard to articulate it into words and struggle to express the deep sadness that can live within them. Depression is an illness that can creep up on individuals or be triggered by life events.

They may not view the struggles they are having as a serious enough issue and may feel that they are not worthy of feeling low in mood comparing their lives to others.

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Finally, the stigma surrounding mental health still lingers, though less potent than before, it may also explain why Williams wasn’t too open about his issues.

Even today mental health can still be misunderstood and it does not have equal weighting with physical health.

But if you are suffering remember you are not alone, and there is help and support out there.

Williams left us with an amazing body of work that brings us joy and laughter.

But he also left us with the message that we need to talk about mental health, reduce the stigma and prevent other tragedies from happening.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams.

If you or someone know you is affected by any mental health issue then you can contact the charity Mind on 0300 123 3393 or visit their website.