Depression and Suicide Re-Visited in the Aftermath of the Death of Robin Williams

Robin Williams… Humble Hero and Comic Virtuoso Dead at 63

Goodbye Robin Williams… May you rest in peace!!  Thank you for all the joy and laughter you brought into all our lives!!  For the talent you shared and for all your good works!!  May you find the joy, peace and laughter that you were looking for in the next life!!  Read more here

Robin Williams 

By Marion Algier  –  True Health Is True Wealth (THITW)

The world was shocked to hear of the death of Robin Williams and even more shocked to hear about the details of his death… his suicide after a life of depression.

Two movies that Williams made come to mind when thinking about the events surrounding his death: Dead Poets Society and What Dreams May Come.

How the lessons of ‘Dead Poets Society’ can help us understand suicide and depression:

By Alyssa Rosenberg – Washington Post: As we have absorbed the news that Robin Williams committed suicide at the age of 63, the conversation about his life and legacy has starfished in any number of directions, some of them outrageously ghoulish, many of them thoughtful. I have been struck by many of the pieces that focus on two ideas: the greatness of Williams’ performance in the period private school drama “Dead Poets Society” and attempts to render suicide and depression more comprehensible.

(Credit: Buena Vista Pictures)
(Buena Vista Pictures)

“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” John Keating (Williams) told the boys in his high school English class in “Dead Poets Society.”

But poetry does more than give us unique perspectives on familiar subjects. It can be a powerful pathway into the mind-sets of profound depression and suicidal ideation that are difficult to render rational to people who are trying to understand them from the outside, and that are flattened by all but the most incandescent prose writers. If we are to truly take Keating’s advice, we ought to examine the same medium that explains to us why we live for insight into why some people choose to die.

Keating teaches his boys Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with its injunction from the Greek hero, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

He might have reached back to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and the story of Ajax’s suicide. In Sir Samuel Garth and John Dryden’s translation, the mighty fighter, furious that Odysseus has been awarded a prize that Ajax believed rightly his, and unable to understand the logic that permits such a decision, commits suicide. “He who cou’d often, and alone, withstand / The foe, the fire, and Jove’s own partial hand,  / Now cannot his unmaster’d grief sustain, / But yields to rage, to madness, and disdain.”

Or what about the “Aeneid,” which gains so much of its power from a seeming contradiction. When Aeneas meets Queen Dido, he is in awe of her. In Robert Fitzgerald’s marvelous translation, Aeneas marvels “What age so happy / Brought you to birth? How splendid were your parents / To have conceived a being like yourself!”

But Aeneas’s hope that “your name and your distinction / Go with me, whatever lands may call me” carries with it the promise that he will leave. When he does, Dido’s understanding of the laws that are meant to govern gods and men cracks and she becomes fixated on a vision of her own death. Virgil captures the moment before her suicide in stunning verse: “Dido’s heart / Beat wildly at the enormous thing afoot. / She rolled her bloodshot eyes, her quivering cheeks / Were flecked with red as her sick pallor grew / Before her coming death. Into the court / She burst her way, then at her passion’s height / She climbed the pyre and bared the Dardan sword– / A gift desired once, for no such need.”

I sometimes wonder if Keating read the work of Weldon Kees, who disappeared in 1955. Kees’s fate is a mystery, but even if he did not kill himself, his vanishing act is a kind of self-murder.

Kees’s work captures the flatness of depression beautifully. In a series of poems about a character named Robinson, Kees describes the man’s “sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.” Ultimately, Robinson vanishes, his absence throwing a pall over the world: “The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,” Kees writes, “Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.  / Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.”

Many of Kees’s other poems seem to suffer from infections similar to the ones that ravage Robinson’s spirit.

In “For My Daughter,” he darkly speculates about the fates that a woman can meet, “Parched years that I have seen  / That may be hers appear: foul, lingering  / Death in certain war, the slim legs green. / Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting  / Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel / Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.” The poem ends in a surprising place. “These speculations sour in the sun,” Kees admits. “I have no daughter. I desire none.”

In “The Upstairs Room,” he uses that same sense of surprise to talk cruelly about “The floor my father stained,” not with varnish but with “The new blood streaming from his head.” The characters in “Five Villanelles” are paralyzed, prevented even from acting to protect themselves: “Here in the kitchen, drinking gin, / We can accept the damndest laws. / We must remain until the roof falls in.”

“Dead Poets Society” is set in 1959, at the same moment that the confessional poets were emerging as a significant force in American letters.

If Keating’s teaching took, I can imagine the young men of that film encountering Anne Sexton’s sharp observation in “Wanting to Die” that “But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.” Or maybe they would be touched by Robert Lowell’s report of his stay in a mental health facility in “Waking in the Blue” that “We are all old-timers, / each of us holds a locked razor.” Lowell himself recalled Dido in “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid.” His character dreams that he is Aeneas, holding the sword that Dido used to kill herself, when he is visited by a bird who counsels him “Brother, try, / O Child of Aphrodite, try to die: / To die is life.”

Sexton and Sylvia Plath captured the grinding drive towards annihilation in “The Double Image” and “Lady Lazarus.” In the former, Sexton watches leaves fall off the trees with the daughter she has failed to parent because of her suicide attempts and stays in institutions. “I tell you what you’ll never really know,” she tells the little girl, “all the medical hypothesis / that explained my brain will never be as true as these / struck leaves letting go.”

“This is Number Three.  / What a trash / To annihilate each decade,” Plath writes in an expression of extreme weariness.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” she counsels readers that ” It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” It is good advice. But poetry can help us see that while we are supposed to recover from losses like Bishop’s, or John Keating’s loss of a student and a job, not all of our brains work the same way.

What Dreams May Come also deals with depression, death and suicide and attacks the religious stance that there is not escape from suicide, that once you go down that path you will spend all eternity in Hell.

What Dreams May Come - Special Edition

There is such a profound sense of drama, magic and emotion behind the story in “What Dreams May Come,” a film based on the novel by Richard Matheson. There is a strong story with which anyone who loves someone else can identify, as well as an ostentatious and elegant scope of visual and auditory imagery that jumps right for your eyes onscreen. Matheson’s visions of heaven and hell are magnificently realized here, as well as the love between two people that is unbreakable, even after death. 

The movie begins with the chance meeting of two American tourists traveling in Switzerland. Soon after, Chris and Annie become inseparable, and after their wedding, they bear two children. Many years later, Ian and Marie are killed in a car collision, leaving their parents distraught yet overcoming. Another couple of years later, Chris dies in a car accident as well, on his way to celebrate the “Double D” anniversary of his wife’s emotional recovery from their childrens’ deaths. This begins his trip into heaven, which is rocky at first during his attempts to console his living wife, then graduating into his acceptance of his immortality and ascemding into heaven, which turns out to be the creation of his own thoughts and settings. When he realizes that he is not completely happy without Annie, he becomes depressed, so it is no surprise that when Annie commits suicide and is sent to hell, he readies himself to rescue his wife from her emotional confines that keep her in her prison of eternal darkness.

The story for this movie is very ambitious, as are the filmmakers who bring it to life. There is an abundance of vivid memories in the form of flashbacks, many of which are precisely used to move the plot along and keep the story moving. Instead of becoming bored with the ongoing story of Annie and Chris’s married and parental life, I found myself becoming more and more entranced as their lives unfolded, and say what you will, but the only way to tell a story like this is through flashbacks. If you were to take all of the memories and place them in order at the beginning of the movie, the audience would forget about the important moments that have an effects on the actions and events that take place in later instances of the film. Each one is a separate piece of the puzzle, and they all fit together quite well.

This film is one of those movies that showcases the possibilities for filmmaking in the future. Really, when you think about it, there is no way that the movie could have been made thirty years ago and still have the same impact as it does now. The settings and scenery play the most important role of the movie, for they provide the reason for the emotion and action that affects our characters. The beginning shots in Switzerland show us beautiful vistas of mountains and lakes, which will later become the inspiration for Chris’s heaven, as well as many of the paintings Annie creates. Their home bursts forth with color and brightness, proving that color plays a big role in the film. When everyone is alive, everything seems light and airy. After Chris’s death, all is dark, and the walls of the home seem dismal and gray. One scene in particular is a scene in which Chris watches his children being driven away in their van down a long line of lilac trees, a slight fog covering the scene. Their is that brilliance of color, yet the dark fog makes us uneasy, hence the accident that kills their children.

Heaven is elegantly portrayed in this film, and is done so with a new twist: that each person has their own private heaven created in the image of their own personal desires and thoughts. Chris’s heaven is based on the paintings of his wife, from the mountains of Switzerland to a small island in the middle of a mountain lake with an opulent, airy house. The filmmakers give each scene the precise look of a painting, even after the special effects fade, using vivid colors, lots of flowers and mountainous backdrops, to transport us into Chris’s new world. This is one of the most incredible film achievements ever, taking us to a special place that is warm, inviting, and personifies every thought we, as an audience, have ever had for beauty and vision.

Hell is given a truly horrifying and intense treatment, displaying visions of suffering as well as the personal and emotional pain of life that haunts us all. Somewhat like the way in which Heaven is created, Hell is seen as a persons’s “life gone wrong,” which allows for the creation of their pain-driven eternity. The gateway to hell is a stunning visual image, a vast, smoky graveyard of smoldering shipwrecks that creak and groan. There is also a dismal, endless sea of decrepit faces of hell’s inhabitants, that groan and scream at one another. The most striking of all the settings is the overturned cathedral, where Annie resides. The columns rise from the ceiling and go on forever into the darkness, which gives the whole place a sense of the neverending.

There is a unique chemistry between the two leads that carries on the film’s emotion and power. Robin Williams is charming, humorous and bold as Chris Nielsen, and through his acting and talent, he is able to make us believe in the love that Chris holds for Annie. Annabella Sciorra is moving as Annie, embodying all of the emotions and grief that set the stage for the second half of the story. When the two are together onscreen, they are happy and in love, and we buy it because they make it appear very authentic. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays the angel that brings Chris to heaven, doing well in his performance of helping Chris through his struggle to realize his death. Max von Sydow, whose part is not as big as others he has had, is the tracker who takes them all to hell, and his words of wisdom keep the film’s informative angle moving.

What Dreams May Come” will go down in history as one of the most innovative and spectacular films ever made, full of ambition and inspiration. In its story, we are taken on a journey of the human heart, as well as a striking vision of what may lie in store for everyone under God’s eye.

When I hear ridiculous statements from people like ‘”Robin Williams’ suicide or any suicide was a cowardly act,” it shows me how little progress we have made in this realm and how uninformed people really are.

I lost my Mother to suicide after a long bout with depression that also involved the shooting of My 21-year-old brother; all ultimately caused by the untimely death of my father from colon cancer and the events that followed.  It is a story for another time.  But as Dennis Miller said on the O’Reilly Factor, “If a gentle and cool cat like Robin Williams could be lost to this disease, we all can!” 

Who should you be calling today that can use your help?

Depression: Approximately 21.5 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year, have a depressive disorder. Nearly twice as many women (12.0 percent) as men (6.6 percent) are affected by a depressive disorder each year. These figures translate to 13.7 million women and 7.8 million men in the U.S.

  • Pre-schoolers represent the fastest-growing market for antidepressants. At least four percent of preschoolers—more than one million—are clinically depressed.
  • The rate of increase of depression among children is 23%.
  • In most developed countries, 15% of the population suffers from severe depression.
  • An estimated 30% of women are depressed.
  • 41% of depressed women are too embarrassed to seek help.
  • 80% of depressed people are not currently receiving any treatment.
  • An estimated 15% of depressed people commit suicide.
  • By 2020, depression will be the second largest killer after heart disease. Furthermore, studies indicate that depression is a contributing factor to fatal coronary disease.

340 million people in the world suffer from depression and rising. 1 in 4 women will suffer from depression. Postnatal depression affects 14 per cent of new mothers. 1 in 10 men will suffer from depression (this statistic is not absolutely correct because more women are apt to see their doctor for depression than men do.) Depression strikes all races, rich and poor.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 121 million people worldwide have some form of depression, although less than 25 percent have access to effective treatment [source: WHO]. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 14.8 million adult Americans experience clinical depression in any given year — or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population over 18 [source: NIH Depressive]. Women are more likely to have major depression than are men, and the average age for a bout of clinical depression to set in is 32 years old. Older adults also are depressed, however. In fact, people 65 years and older commit suicide at a higher rate than the national average [source: Senior Health]. The good news is that NIH statistics show that the percentage of all adults in the U.S. who are depressed went down a full percentage point from 2007 to 2008… but something tells me that the figures from 2008 to 2014 will have gone in the other direction!!

About Ask Marion

I am a babyboomer and empty nester who savors every moment of my past and believes that it is the responsibility of each of us in my generation and Americans in general to make sure that America is as good or even a better place for future generations as it was for us. So far... we haven't done very well!! Favorite Quotes: "The first 50 years are to build and acquire; the second 50 are to leave your legacy"; "Do something that scares you every day!"; "The journey in between what you once were and who you are becoming is where the dance of life really takes place". At age 62 I find myself fighting inoperable uterine Cancer and thanks to the man upstairs and the prayers from so many people including many of my readers from AskMarion and JustOneMorePet... I'm beating it. After losing our business because of the economy and factors related to the re-election of President Obama in 2012 followed by 16-mos of job hunting, my architect-trained husband is working as a trucker and has only been home approximately 5-days a month since I was diagnosed, which has made everything more difficult and often lonely... plus funds are tight. Our family medical deductible is 12K per year for two of us; thank you ObamaCare. But thanks to donations from so many of you, we are making ends meet as I go through treatment while taking care of my father-in-law who is suffering from late stage Alzheimer's and my mother-in-law who suffers from RA and onset dementia as well as hearing loss, for which there are no caretaker funds, as I continue the fight here online to inform and help restore our amazing country. And finally I need to thank a core group of family, friends, and readers... all at a distance, who check in with me regularly. Plus, I must thank my furkids who have not left my side through this fight. You can see them at JustOneMorePet.
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