The death of the highly regarded actor, 63-year-old Robin Williams, has rocked the world, after having allegedly taking his own life the night of August 11th. His wife, colleagues, and fans have been grieving since the unsuspected tragedy occurred. Mr. Williams was one of the greatest comedians of our time, and known by many to be a genuinely kind person.
“We never saw this coming,” was the general sentiment that emerged during initial interviews of those closest to Mr. Williams, a response not unique Williams’s case. In fact, loved ones and friends of suicide victims often report surprise when these types of events occur. It is not because of lack of caring, but rather the absence of understanding about the circumstances of suicide that creates this separation. Many do not realize just how prevalent a detachment between an individual contemplating suicide and the loved ones who surround them tends to be. Mr. Williams’s death, while a terrible tragedy, may serve as a catalyst to help us connect to a deeper understanding of depression and suicide.
To better understand the circumstances of suicide, it is important for us to eliminate the misconceptions surrounding it. Professionals and laymen alike have proposed that these attempts are the result of anger or even appear as acts of vengeance. Some react to suicide by deeming it a selfish act, blaming the victim by stating “if only they had… this never would have happened.”
Contrary to these notions, in many cases, suicide is an act of desperation and utter hopelessness. Many times, victims are seeking an end to the terrible anguish and physiological pain they have lived through for years. Their perception of their situation is one of despair, debilitating symptoms, anguish, and physiological dysregulation.
Nicholas Strouse, the Director and a clinician at Westport Family Counseling, explains severe chronic depression in the following way:
Picture the pain of losing someone you love… pain that causes you to weep and promise God that you will do anything in exchange for things to go back to the way they were… pain that causes you to lose focus… lose your appetite… pain that keeps you up all night… pain that won’t let you get out of bed in the morning… Imagine that pain amplified exponentially… and then imagine that pain continuing for years.
In addition to psychic pain, severe depression creates a myriad of symptoms, ranging from stress-disorders to psychosomatic disorders, (headaches, fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome), insular thinking, and reclusive behavior. Depression also impacts the immune system, coursing through the body like cancer.
However, whereas cancer is a concrete medical condition, depression is a term that refers to a cluster of subjective symptoms that include psychic pain, physiological manifestations, emotional dysregulation, psychosomatic conditions, and is therefore harder to pinpoint or define. Depression, unlike cancer, is abstract and intangible.
It is a common belief among individuals who are depressed that something is inherently wrong with them. This ego deficit precipitates the desire to hide and invariably leads to isolation, increasing self-blame and self-loathing. Because of this type of thinking, severely depressed individuals often just “put on a happy face,” in order to stop people from asking about the issue. Sadly, Robin Williams may have done just that.
It makes sense, then–as irrational as it may seem–that people contemplating suicide do not often reach out for help, and try to hide their pain. Many who suffer and stay silent lead lives of quiet desperation. However, hope lies in our potential to propel a collective shift in perception. The goal is to raise the level of empathy, understanding, and compassion, to open communication lines with those who are suffering. If we are successful in our objective, it will become less likely that friends and loved ones of suicide victims must say, “We never saw this coming.”
-By Mark Renchner-Kelly, WFC