A few weeks ago I interviewed comic, Tom Stade and asked him about Robin Williams and his recent suicide. I decided to omit his comments from the interview and instead wrote this piece for Open Magazine.
This summer the world was stunned when the comedian and actor Robin Williams was discovered dead at his California home, aged just 63. The comic, whose career had seen him bring happiness and laughter to millions, lost his battle with depression and took his own life.
For the twenty-somethings amongst us, Williams’ films are nostalgic triggers for childhood memories; Aladdin, Jumanji, Mrs Doubtfire, Flubber, Jack, Hook – the list is endless. Whether as a cartoon genie granting wishes or burning fake boobs as a children’s nanny, Robin Williams was ever present to provide the laughs as we grew up. Somewhat selfishly, we could view him as someone who exclusively entertained our generation. However, the thousands of tributes that poured out since his passing prove just how wrong we’d be. Our parents had laughed at Mork & Mindy long before Williams ever dabbled with drag, and our younger siblings were part of a new generation he was entertaining with films like Happy Feet and Night at the Museum. He wasn’t just the “funny guy” either – films like Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam received critical acclaim. It was his eye-catching performance in Good Will Hunting however, in which William’s channeled his manic energy into a charismatic yet tender portrayal of a man haunted by his own demons, yet determined to help another he knows has the potential to be special. He won an Oscar for the film, and validated his credentials as a ‘serious actor’. It is not an exaggeration to say that Williams truly had universal appeal.
As with the death of any celebrity, along with the heart felt tributes, came the intense and intrusive media coverage. This time, however, it was slightly different; Williams hadn’t died of old age, been the victim of a tragic accident or even died from substance abuse – he’d taken his own life. Suicide. It was a time for sensitive, responsible reporting but sadly, the usual suspects could be relied upon to do the exact opposite. Despite the fact that The Samaritans reminded the media of the guidelines for covering suicide, The Sun and The Metro still felt the need to inform their readers exactly how a person chose to end their life. The Mirror and The Daily Mail focused more on his possible reasoning; suggesting money problems had been the cause of his death rather than the medical condition he had been diagnosed with and suffered from all his life, mental illness. What these papers all had in common, as well as being grossly inappropriate, was that they had completely ignored The Samaritans’ guidelines and missed a golden opportunity to raise a national debate on the subject of mental illness whilst paying tribute to a Hollywood icon.
A week after Robin Williams death I interviewed Tom Stade, a Canadian comedian who just weeks prior to Williams’ death, in an interview with Esquire, had credited him as being the one who gave him the best advice as an aspiring comic. I decided to question him about depression, particularly in older males, and whether he had any opinions on the lazy ‘tears of a clown’ theory that gets bandied around whenever an extrovert suffers from mental health issues. This is the response I got:
“I’m not a fan of suicide – we’re all dying so why speed up the process? Robin was a very funny man and his depression made him funny. Depressed comics are lucky because they have an outlet. When you see the shittest aspects of life you can be really funny. Anyway, Robin Williams didn’t kill himself because he was depressed; he killed himself because he owed his ex-wives too much money!”
I made the decision to omit this quote from the original interview. It didn’t seem right to include it without an explanation. Tom Stade was a warm, charming interviewee and his job is obviously to make people laugh and, sometimes, be controversial. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving this soundbite in the interview without an explanation and risk it being taken out of context. In my opinion mental health, at the moment, is too serious of a subject to joke and quip without some educational information being attached to it.
Rather than speculate about Robin’s problems or delve into his “agonising final hours” we should be using his death as an opportunity to tackle the serious problems we have across the world when it comes to how we deal with mental health issues.
Whereas a growing number of celebrities are open about their mental health battles, the Average Joe still feels a stigma attached to discussing their well-being. With 1 in 4 people experiencing some kind of mental health problem in their lifetime, it’s vital this changes. Awareness is crucial – this year we’ve inflicted our make-up free grids on social media for cancer or participated in the narcissistic Ice Bucket Challenge but the health problem that needs the most awareness and exposure seems muted amongst the more ‘PR friendly’ diseases.
Depressed and mentally ill people are always encouraged to speak out and seek help but that’s sometimes easier said than done. When suffering from depression, as cliché as it sounds, simply getting in the shower can be the most Herculean task so booking an appointment and making it to the doctors can become an impossible mission. Even if you do make it to a GP, there’s a good chance you may not receive the help needed thanks to the government cutting mental health services left, right and centre. Off work sick with depression? Good luck with your ATOS assessment. The Tories are slowly ensuring that England isn’t the greatest place to be if you find yourself in a bad place.
Fortunately, this country is filled with brilliant, pro-active people and there are some truly wonderful mental health organisations around – CALM being one of them. CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is a registered charity which exists to prevent male suicide across the UK. Suicide is now the single biggest cause of death in men aged 20-49 in England and Wales and male suicide accounts for a shocking 77% of all suicide. CALM aims to offer support to men in the UK who may be feeling down or in crisis as well as challenging a culture that prevents men from seeking help. Working alongside health commissioners across Merseyside, CALM has a strong presence across the city and since it’s launch 10 years ago the local suicide rate in young men has dropped year on year.
Wednesday 10th September, World Suicide Prevention Day, saw CALM launch a new campaign across Merseyside; The Man Down campaign. They encouraged us all to get hold of one of their posters “I am a man. I refuse to be a man down”, take a selfie and upload it to their social media accounts. It was a huge success and that Wednesday saw Twitter feeds filled with #ManDown related Tweets rather than the usual begging for Orange Wednesday codes or generic hump day memes. The result? People are talking about suicide and depression and men are being encouraging to reach out and talk to somebody when life gets difficult.
See also: The Digital Age Is Making Us All Sick….