Misinformed, angry, coffee-addled ranting.
Early yesterday morning, the world awoke to the sad news of the death of beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams. In June, we lost Rik Mayall and earlier this year Only Fools and Horses star Roger Lloyd-Pack passed away. If that wasn’t evidence enough for the Grim Reaper’s apparent fetish for funny folk, Patsy Byrne who played Nursie in Blackadder died this summer and 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan was left fighting for his life after a car crash. For those of us with a serious love of silliness, 2014 has been rough.
All of these stories have led to outpourings of grief and tributes. Countless people have expressed their sadness at the loss of these great entertainers, and lauded their fantastic talents and accomplishments. At present, the world seems united by the loss of a brilliant comedic figure, and have expressed their feelings accordingly.
Then there’s the ugly side.
Robin Williams’ daughter has been forced to quit Twitter over vicious mocking and hateful abuse. Fox News scumbag Shepard Smith called Williams a coward and more than one individual has echoed the thoughts of Todd Bridges, who declared Williams’ suicide ‘selfish’.
The declaration of suicide as an inherently selfish or cowardly act is not a new phenomenon. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the sheer lack of understanding of mental illness in society, and one that won’t go away without proper education or a good hard culling of the ignorant. Dean Burnett has explained the issue much better than I ever could, and I would advise all of you to read his piece here. In the mean time, several very good articles have sprung up about the link between Comedy and Depression. That being said, it’s worth bearing in mind Dara Ó Briain’s valid comments warning of the dangers of linking the two too readily. Not all comedians are depressed and not all depressed people are comedians.
The reason this stereotype has been perpetuated so readily is that it makes perfect sense that an individual who spends their entire lives desperate to make other people laugh likely has some sort of character trait or personality that facilitates this need. I speak from personal experience when I say that using comedy is a great way to solve problems, to gain approval, to make people like you and, for some people, as a way to keep others at arm’s length. Comedy is a fantastic way of deflecting criticism. It’s much more difficult for others to mock you when you jump in there first and declare “Hey guys! Look how crap I am! Aren’t I a knob?!”.
The reason I feel the need to explain this is because comments like this in response to Williams’ death are ball-achingly common:
When someone close to me had to take time off work for depression, the only way for him to explain it to his colleagues was to say he’d “caught mad”. People simply don’t understand mental illness, and depression in particular bears the brunt of public ignorance. I’ve been studying the bastard for five years and I still don’t understand it. I have been depressed. We all have. But not everyone suffers from depression, and this is a key difference many fail to understand. Despite the refusal of some to acknowledge it, depression is a real and genuine medical condition, just as real as breaking your leg or contracting chlamydia; and it can happen to absolutely anyone. Doctors use something called the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) when they address mental illness, and the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder can be found here. As Dean Burnett commented in the above article, you may still not believe depression to be real, but decades’ worth of evidence tell you you’re wrong.
However, I speak from the position of someone with years of experience learning about mental illness. I accept that not everyone has this luxury, and it’s here that the media plays an important role to educate and enlighten people. It’s unfortunate then that large amounts of the media coverage of Williams’ death have been a complete shit show, reducing a complex tragic issue to a sensationalist, easily digestible, brutal and graphic money-maker. Do you know the exact method Williams’ used to end his life? Because you shouldn’t. Copious amounts of research has gone into determining the best way for the media to report incidents of suicide; and arguably the most important part of the guidelines is to not go into too much detail about how it happened. The reason for this is that evidence shows increases in ‘copycat’ suicides following such publications. The media have fundamentally ignored guidelines on how to handle such matters sensitively and responsibly, ostensibly giving vulnerable people information, rationale and justification for their own suicide attempts. But then, that’s the vulnerable peoples’ own stupid fault for standing in the way of capitalism.
Ultimately though, despite my initial fury at today’s despicable front covers, it’s bloody good to live in an age where so many people are outraged by this. For so many people to criticise the reaction makes me happy to know that we are slowly working towards an age wherein mental illness is no longer stigmatised. We’ve still got a long way to go, as no amount of public understanding can help when the support systems to actually do anything about it are cripplingly underfunded. But the main thing to take away from this article is the importance of openness and understanding, both from those suffering from mental illness and the people around them. People need to be willing to talk about their conditions, and just as importantly people need to be willing to listen. The onus should never be on one person, whether that’s a person suffering in silence or a person who feels unable to do anything to help.
There are organisations available, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Many Universities have Nightline, an organisation designed to support students who feel they need someone to talk to, with no problem too small. The Samaritans offer support not only for individuals suffering from mental illness but for the people around them too. And Mind, the Mental Health Charity do some fantastic work both in terms of support and education.
I do apologise for the lack of laughs in this article, something I’m sure Robin Williams would find unforgivable. I talked earlier about the power of comedy, but besides all its peripheral benefits in terms of masking pain or deflecting attention, I missed out the most important part – laughing is fucking awesome. Anyone or anything that can make you laugh is brilliant, and the importance of laughter should never be understated. Many people will be re-watching Good Will Hunting or One Hour Photo at the moment in tribute to Robin Williams’ dramatic abilities. However, I shall be watching Mrs Doubtfire, because the day I stop finding a man in drag accidentally setting his tits on fire funny will be the saddest day of all.