Robin Williams – Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside

The sad news of Robin Williams untimely death this week has brought forth the expected tide of tributes to this man who made millions laugh around the world and rightfully so.

He wasn’t ever my favourite comedian, far from it, though I did like Mrs Doubtfire and much of Good Morning Vietnam which sadly I am still quoting nearly 20 years later.  I didn’t watch any of his later and more serious roles as they looked too saccharine to me.  However there is no denying that Robin Williams was immensely talented and brought happiness to so many lives which is why his death is all the more tragic.

Yet almost as predictably are the snide comments about his suicide.  Any suicide that makes the news seems to be condemned as ‘selfish’.  Selfish to yourself, selfish because they hurt family and friends or just selfish because that person apparently had so much going for them and the rest of us don’t have and yet they still committed suicide.

Robin Williams giving one of his famous monologues in Bahrain

Robin Williams giving one of his famous monologues in Bahrain

However, all of these snide and unsympathetic comments are all entirely wrong because clinical depression is a serious condition that all the more unfortunately for its sufferers shares the name that much of society uses incorrectly.  People express that their depressed about the weather, their sports team losing, their workplace or their friends and family.   We all get depressed sometimes we are told except of course that we don’t. These things are not real depression, just passing phases of sadness.

Comparing sadness and real depression is like saying that you have stubbed your toe to someone with one or both of their legs missing and that you are okay and got over it so why are they making a fuss.

It’s often said that mental illnesses don’t receive the same media attention or social acceptance as physical diseases and whilst it is easy for those of us who have all our limbs to sympathise with those aren’t so fortunate, it seems that it is much harder for many who have never had depression to offer any understanding at all to those with a serious mental illness.

Even mad King George III suffered from mental illness and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he was possibly the most powerful person in the entire world at that time.  If it could happen to him then it could happen to any of us, even a wealthy and talented Hollywood comedian.

Though some people with a difficult life may be predisposed to suffer from depression more than others, the condition doesn’t pick and choose carefully which people it is going to afflict.  Smoking and eating junk food may increase the chances of suffering from cancer or heart attacks but it is entirely possible to refrain from both of these bad habits and many more but still fall prey to the diseases, I know from family experience.

Besides which even if some critics of Robin William’s suicide have valid points about his wealth and opportunity that he had that we the living still don’t have doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel sorry for him.  My compassion makes no judgement between the suffering of a famous comedian or a bombed out child in Gaza and really if you think about it, it would be horrendous if it did.

Those who badmouth suicide victims seem to be under the impression that such people are in a normal rational state of mind and that they draw up a list of pros and cons and that despite having money, a house and a young child that is enough for the person to pick the obvious choice of life.

Someone with serious depression is likely to see things entirely different, they might even think their suicide is a help to their family and friends or at the very least the only option they have; the only control left over their life is to end it.  If this all sounds like illogical madness it is only because this is a sign of how it can be like to suffer from a mental disease.  This is how ill a person must be to contemplate such drastic actions.

It’s often said that suicide is the easy way out.  How can anyone say that if they don’t know how that person’s mind is thinking.  It’s most likely that they agonised over it for weeks, months or even years.  They may have thought about it day and night for much of their life before a moment of weakness or additional problem forced them over the edge. Just as no-one would think bad of someone with both their legs broken to not go for a long walk, why would anyone condemn someone with a disease that effects their entire outlook on life for deciding that life is no longer for them?

Some of the most brilliant people in their professions have suffered from depression, in fact simply just some of the most brilliant people.  Stephen Fry, the actor, comedian and all round good-bloke is famous for suffering from terrible bouts of depression (his biography and tv documentary on it are amazing) and yet he is clearly one of the most intelligent people on television or film today, in fact he has almost made a career out of his intelligence.

I don’t know any of these brilliant people personally but I do know at least one or two people who have tried to commit suicide and I can testify that they were and are some of the loveliest creatures of creation.

With debates now raging about introducing a right to die for British patients suffering from painful and terminal illnesses and it being a debate that more and more of the population are supporting, surely it is time to at least offer sympathy to those whose hidden illness mean that they don’t get to reach old age.

Robin Williams made the world laugh while inside he was crying.  If his death helps change the perception of mental illness and suicide then perhaps it will be his career defining role.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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9 Responses to Robin Williams – Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside

  1. EBotziou says:

    Well said Stephen. The subject of suicide is such a controversial topic and it is so sad that someone as talented and brilliant and seemingly so well loved as Robin Williams, felt that he couldn’t carry on in this life. My sister and I regularly quote Mrs Doubtfire – he will not be forgotten.


  2. msauthorette says:

    Thank you. I agree completely with you. The word depression is indeed used too liberally and for the wrong reasons, which detracts from plight of true sufferers. Robin Williams wasn’t my favorite comedian but I’ve been watching him my whole life, in movies, tv, and stand up. It’s widely known that the flipside of comedy is tragedy; it’s out of their pain, anger, issues, observances, hang ups, etc that comedians form their ability to make others/themselves laugh (it’s a way to escape the negative feelings, if only for a while). Many comedians have suffered from depression, anger, alcohol/substance abuse. Fame and money cannot heal or curse or make invalid someone’s hurts, pain, depression, fears, or mental illness. And it’s unfair of people to view suicide as a selfish act, rather than a show of desperation.


    • I entirely agree with your comments too. People need to stop using the word depression for simply feeling sad or unhappy. No one mentions they have Alzheimers just because they forget something. I think Comedians are special people and they look at the world differently than everyone else but as you say that brilliance which lets them look at things in a funny way can also make them look at the world in a bad way. I wonder how many comedians are funny primarily to make themselves laugh if only for a little while and it is just a bonus that they can make their audience laugh too.


      • msauthorette says:

        You know, I wonder the same thing. Many creatively brilliant people struggle with the negative side of life/emotions.


        • That’s so true. A lot of us here probably know that as slightly less than brilliant writers and bloggers. The really tough and emtionless people go through life without highs and the lows almost like robots whilst many others are up and down and they enjoy the ups so much more than the robots because they know just how bad the downs are.


  3. Thanks Ekaterina. It is controversial for lots of reasons isn’t it but I think it is only the people who have had no dealings with it if not themselves but with others who could criticise Robin Williams. I just feel very sad and sorry for him if he felt that way for so many weeks as it seems he did. I always think of his lines in Good Morning Vietnam, especially his 0600 meaning Oh my God its early as I am always up at the crack of dawn and also for some reason ” God, is it hot. What a country. Heat, humidity, terrorism. Still, it’s better that New York in the summer.” It always makes me think of London… not that I’ve ever been to New York! Yes he will be missed 😦


  4. Dave Miller says:

    Well said Stephen.


  5. vicky liddell says:

    Well written Stephen! As the wife of a man who sufers with depression I can tell you he has tried to kill himself 2 times! This is a hard day to day illness (illness being the operative word) and taking anti depressants do not always work. When the brains chemicles get unbalanced…well….it’s hard to live with and hard to understand! But he, like Williams, is a good man, a funny man most often, and a good dad. Just has an illness we ALL deal with as his loving family.


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