Depression: The Silent Killer (Good night, Mr. Williams)


I saw today someone commented on how the media needs to not focus as much on Robin Williams’ death as other tragedies, both nationwide and internationally. And for as much as I agree with the sentiment that one’s celebrity status shouldn’t make them more newsworthy, I think the thing to take from the tragic passing of Mr. Williams is not that he died, but how he died.


Because, as it was confirmed today, he died at the hand of a killer that has claimed too many lives. A killer who killed yesterday, the day before, and has undoubtedly killed many more times since news broke about Mr. Williams’ death. A killer whose victims are not all beloved celebrities. Mental illness and depression is so stigmatized that admitting you’re a victim takes its own sort of bravery. We’re embarrassed by what our brain tells us, and we’re told repeatedly by well-meaning people to “get over it” or “shake it off” or “focus on the good” or “look at everything you have” or other bits of spun fortune cookie wisdom that ultimately do more harm than good.

These things don’t make us feel better. It’s not as simple as snapping out of a mood. It’s not about distracting ourselves and coming back to the real world in a better mood. You don’t turn off kidney disease or chronic back pain. You don’t wake up one morning and not have cancer because you feel better that day. You don’t get to get over illness by sheer force of will. And that’s one of the most frightening and misunderstood things about mental disorders—that because you can’t see it, because the thing growing inside you isn’t a physical entity, it doesn’t really exist.

I don’t believe in demons from Hell. Those of the mind, though, are very real, and infinitely more terrifying.

No one has ever asked for mental illness. No one has ever enjoyed it. There are no perks. When I tell someone I had a bad day because of my OCD, I mean because my brain has done its best to turn me against myself, and despite all my tools and knowledge, my OCD still happens. And in my world, when OCD strikes, it brings depression with it. I can laugh and joke and go through my routine, and unless you really know me, you don’t know that I’m not feeling at my best. You don’t know that at any point, my mind is at war with itself.

Because depression isn’t Eeyore. Some people with depression might fit the caricature, but not all of them. I’d wager not even most of them. Many people who fight depression do so silently, with a smile in place. Most sufferers—most of us—are repeat victims, and many of us can get by with the promise that we’ve been here before, and we’ve gotten out before. And honestly, that’s how I manage more days than others. I think about how bad it once was and how bad it’s not now, and even if I don’t like the way I feel, the sensation will ultimately pass and I’ll be back to my version of normal.

Depression doesn’t discriminate. Mr. Williams was the definition of a success in his industry. Improved circumstances don’t make depression go away. Right now, I’m about the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. Yet still, and even recently, I’ve felt some of the old familiar pangs of my OCD and its companion depression. Because OCD and depression don’t give a shit how happy I am, and they never will. Telling myself that I have no reason to feel a certain way doesn’t make the feeling go away. If anything, knowing that I shouldn’t feel this way makes the sensation worse. Knowing that others have it worse than I do makes me feel guilty for feeling the way I do, and resent the brain that enables it.

We become our own worst enemy, and we feel bad because of it.

And all our well-meaning friends do their best to make us feel better, and sometimes only make it worse. Yes, it should be simple. But it’s not. The brain is too complex to be simplified in such terms, and with conditions we only recently began to identify, fixing them takes more than just an evening out. It takes time, patience, knowledge, and understanding.

When you’re depressed, your brain can’t be trusted. Your body revolts. And no amount of pep talks or well-meaning-but-misguided advice can change that.

So yes, while I agree that a celebrity death shouldn’t dominate headlines, I hope this one does. Because Mr. Williams was taken from us by something that is still so mischaracterized, misunderstood, and underestimated that it deserves to be brought into the mainstream. If you loved Mr. Williams, don’t let the killer who took his life escape the limelight. Don’t belittle or roll your eyes or claim he should’ve realized people loved him. Depression doesn’t work like that. Not for Mr. Williams, nor for the millions who are suffering silently right now under the crippling influence of his killer.

To those people who fear speaking about their depression for the stigma that exists, who resist asking for help because they don’t want to appear weak, who suffer in silence because that’s the only way they know. You are not weak. You did not ask for this. And with time, understanding, and yes, a lot of work, it can get better.

I promise.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please seek counseling. If you are in crisis, get help immediately.

Other pieces worth reading:

When the Illness You Live With Becomes Breaking News

Robin Williams and the Mask of Humor

Robin Williams's death: a reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish