Robin Williams Was Sick, Not Selfish: On Suicide and Mental Illness

Aug 11 2014

Suicide has hit our small Oregon community hard in the last few weeks. Jennifer Huston disappeared at the end of July. She was found days later, after a several-state search, dead by suicide, leaving behind a bewildered and grieving family, including her young kids who will grow up now without their mama. 

Our community is left mourning and confused, which is natural, I think. Normal. Important, even, as we come together and work to love each other well. To reach out. To provide comfort. And in the midst of our bafflement, I hear people saying over and over they wish Jennifer had known she had a community. They wish she’d known she had friends. They wish she’d known she wasn’t alone. And yet, from everything I gather, she had those people in her life. People who loved her. People whom she loved. People who would’ve fought to try to save her had they but known her struggle. 

And now Robin Williams is gone. By all accounts, due to probable suicide.

I’ve suffered from depression. It’s my constant companion still. And I’ve found it difficult to forgive myself for the losses my illness and I inflicted on my family. For the ways I couldn’t find out of the Darkness. For the day I sat in the bathroom, staring at the anti-depressant pills that weren’t working and wondering if there was another way I could be free from the relentless sensation of drowning. Dead already, I thought. Lost to myself utterly.

And although the wondering is the closest I came to suicide, walking instead the long, slow road back to hope, I learned some things in that bathroom, and some things since, in my research on depression. 

I’ve often heard it said that suicide is the most selfish of acts. It’s popular to think so, as though being more selfless is a cure for depression. A cure for brain chemistry gone wrong. But that’s simply, totally, completely untrue. 

If, in fact, Robin Williams did die due to suicide, he did not die because he was mortally selfish.

Nor did Jennifer die because she lacked community.

And although an extraordinarily simplistic case can be made for it, neither of them died because they gave up or gave in. Or from lack of strength. Or from lack of willpower. 

No; Robin Williams and Jennifer Huston died from illness. Mental illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. They died from being very, very sick, a symptom of which is having a brain that is utterly incapable of making the logical, lifesaving choice to live any longer. 

My friend Marie wrote, “From the outside, it is difficult to see, and impossible to feel, the crushing weight of Darkness. We wouldn’t judge someone who was being crushed by a bus and isn’t able to extricate himself from the situation.” And she’s right, absolutely.

In the wake of Jennifer’s and Robin’s deaths, the best thing we can do in their memory is educate ourselves on the many signs of depression. The many signs of mental illness. And to bravely butt in when we suspect our people are suffering.

Listen. Depression does not always look like sadness. Depression does not always look like numbness. And depression often comes in disguise. Disguised as anger. Disguised as physical pain. Disguised as an inability to function. Disguised as isolation. Be on the lookout, friends. For yourself and for each other.

There is treatment. There is hope.

At the same time, we also must acknowledge we cannot save everyone. And we must not blame ourselves for those we couldn’t save. Which is, perhaps, the hardest job of all.


Good Places to Begin Learning about Suicide Prevention and Treatment for Mental Illness:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Signs of Clinical Depression
Warning Signs of Mental Illness