I am not one to grieve for celebrities. I shed no tears when Princess Diana died in a high-speed car chase, when James Gandolfini suffered a sudden (and fatal) heart attack, or when Whitney Houston drowned in a bathtub. Tragic as these deaths were, I did not know these people personally, and I did not mourn for them.
Neither did I know Robin Williams. So why, then, was I so distressed to learn Monday that the actor-comedian had died from suicide at the age of 63?
Was it because Williams provided the laugh-track for my generation? As kids, we loved his quirky performances on “Mork & Mindy.” As teens, we adored “Good Morning, Vietnam.” As adults, we laughed — side-splitting bursts of laughter — at his unpredictable, quick-witted comedy. As parents, we watched him delight our children (on video or on-demand) in “Aladdin,” “Hook,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Jumanji,” and “Night at the Museum.” We grew up to the humor of Robin Williams, and so did our kids.
But it is not simply because the world lost a uniquely talented actor that so many people feel so sad. We are sad because Williams’s untimely and self-inflicted death reminds us that, beneath facades of happiness and laughter, millions of seemingly functional Americans suffer from psychiatric disorders for which there are no cures.
Most of us want to hide from mental illness. We want to pretend that it can’t happen to us, or to our friends, or to our children. We want to pretend that psychiatric problems afflict only others — homeless people, veterans with PTSD, drug addicts. We don’t want to acknowledge that “regular,” even “successful,” people can suffer deep psychic pain.
Williams’s death jolts us, like a bucket of ice water to the head, into remembering that even a person who is successful, warm, funny, and loved can be depressed enough to take his own life.
Why was Williams depressed? I am not a psychiatrist, but an educated guess is that he suffered from bipolar disorder — a complicated mental condition characterized by extreme mood swings. His work had such a frenetic, impulsive quality to it that it appeared to be fueled by some form of mania. Williams acknowledged as much in a 2006 interview on National Public Radio.
“Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes,” he said. “Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.”
This type of cycling between manic and despondent mood states is the hallmark of bipolar disorder. But, wait! Isn’t there some other possible explanation? Didn’t Williams recently have financial troubles? Didn’t he struggle with drugs and alcohol? Maybe the pressure of living in the glare of Hollywood klieg lights was simply too much?
Desperately, we look for answers — but mostly for ways to distance ourselves from his plight, for ways to convince ourselves that it “can’t happen here” — not to us or to our loved ones.
And yet, it can. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects nearly 6 million Americans; depression alone affects millions more. These people are not just movie stars. They are our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends, and our relatives. Often, we are completely unaware of their suffering. When we are, we are often powerless to help.
We can hide behind excuses. But deep down, the death of Robin Williams reminds us that mental illness does not discriminate. Achievement, wealth, education — even love and family support — cannot protect us from it. This scares us. And it is one of the reasons that we grieve.