It was with great sadness, nostalgia, and horror Monday that the world discovered Robin Williams was dead from apparent suicide. Williams touched so many lives, and was such an overwhelming presence that nearly everybody had a story to tell. Underneath the sadness, nostalgia, and horror, though, was a pervasive sentiment of shock and confusion. How could somebody so funny, so joyful, so wonderful be sad enough to take his own life? How did nobody know this was coming?
Then people started to draw connections. Robin Williams struggled with drug addiction. In an NPR interview, he said that he sometimes felt “down in the dumps.” It turns out, “down in the dumps” was more than the typical blues that everybody feels from time to time. It was a deep, crippling depression that had caused him to turn, at times, to drugs, and eventually to suicide.
He’s not the first. Chris Farley. Mitch Hedberg. John Belushi. Some of the biggest names in comedy eventually lost battles with addiction and depression, leaving right in their prime. The list of attempted suicides is even longer, boasting names like Louis C.K., Owen Wilson, Artie Lang, and Drew Carey. Comedy Gods who spend all of their energy making the world laugh, who seem like endless fonts from which we can draw smiles…so sad inside that they cannot stand to be in their own heads anymore.
Why is this happening?
Well, in part it may be because the funny person’s brain is wired fundamentally differently. A study from the British Journal of Psychiatry conducted in January of this year was one of the first to really take a look at the incidence of mental illness in comedians. The finding? Comedians are more likely to have psychotic traits than the average person, and are more likely to have schizophrenia or manic depression. Comedian scores on two of the traits, anhedonia (inability to feel joy from normal joy-producing acts) and impulsivity (acting without considering the consequences of those actions), were much higher.
So scientifically speaking, comedians are more likely to be wired to struggle to feel joy, and more likely to not consider the consequences of their actions. This combination is a ticking time bomb for drug addiction, which provides artificial euphoria (good feelings), but has ill-considered long-term consequences. Should they avoid the drugs, then they may just not feel euphoria at all, and all that’s left is numbness and sadness.
Now take the science away and just think of it socially.
Humor can be isolating. The comedian makes light of his or her own struggles to make us smile. At that point, we are smiling and feeling giddy, but they are STILL STRUGGLING. The ability to turn tough material into a joke doesn’t make it any less tough for the person experiencing it, it just means that now everybody is laughing while they remain sad or angry.
Humor can be a mask. The funny man is often making jokes to divert attention from their own demons. If the world thinks they are hilarious, then nobody can focus on the overwhelming inadequacies and insecurities they’re feeling. It is a crunchy, delightful candy-coating that hides the bitter nougat within.
Humor can be a burden. A reputation for being funny becomes the primary identity of the comedian. It’s always positive attention, and it’s validating to see people laugh, so they keep doing it. Keep the happy face up. Keep cracking the jokes. It’s what’s expected of them. Even when they’re dying inside. They have to keep providing amusement to others, because if they become a “downer,” then they lose everything.
So what can we do? Well, we can encourage the scientific community to continue to research mental illness. We can continue to talk about it openly and without judgment so that people know they aren’t alone. We can treat everyone with kindness, whether we’re on an internet forum or on the street or with our friends. We can reach out to those who seem to be having a tough time. And we can realize that jokes don’t always equal happiness. Our funniest friends may need us the most, so don’t take the humor at face value if something seems “off.” It may take some gentle digging to get a natural comedian to open up to you, but you may end up saving a life.
Depression and addiction are terrifying and terrible. They both feel like a choking, wet, black darkness from which you will never emerge. Depression is very, very good at convincing you that you cannot and will not feel better. Too many people struggle alone, self-medicate with drugs, spiral downwards, and ultimately give up. That shouldn’t happen. Depression is a form of illness, and it is TREATABLE. It may not be easy, and it may not always be the first thing you try that kicks it, but SOMETHING WILL WORK. Please, if you feel sadness or emptiness that isn’t going away, ask for help. Ask your friends or family or a doctor for help. If you can’t ask them, then go to http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org and talk to someone via chat or over the phone at (800)273-TALK.
The world will miss Robin Williams fiercely, and I hope we will take this as a wakeup call to lift each other up and take depression and addiction as serious social problems, rather than just few and far between individual issues.
Kristie Webber is a stay-at-home Air Force wife and mom who writes sarcastic commentary and swear words about food, fitness, and babies at The Spiteful Chef. She feels qualified to do so because she’s a Culinary Institute of America trained chef, an ACE certified personal trainer, and the mother of a wildly impulsive toddler boy. She enjoys eating cake, drinking wine, entering and losing athletic races of all kinds, and being a giant nerd. You can also follow Kristie on Twitter and Facebook.
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