On the reaction to Robin Williams’ death: How denigrating his decision affects us all

HarrisonFinzel-8-21

Depression is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses in our country. Everyday expressions have turned “feeling depressed” into a casual description of one’s commonplace melancholies, though true clinical depression is a far more dangerous and far more powerful force that millions of Americans deal with throughout their lives. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, at any time 3-5 percent of people suffer from major depression — the type of depressive disorder that most commonly comes to mind when the word is used — and there is a lifetime risk of 17 percent, meaning that each person has a 1 in 6 chance of suffering from major depression at some point in their lifetime. Depression is not the same as being sad, it is not the same as being apathetic, or despondent, but is a serious mental illness all its own.

In the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide, social media erupted with heartfelt tributes to the renowned comedian and actor, with famous people of all shades — musicians, fellow actors and comedians, and even our own President offering their condolences to his family and expressing their personal grief at his passing. However, there have been a few reactions to Robin’s death that illustrate an undercurrent of misunderstanding and a lack of empathy towards those who suffer from depression, and in particular towards those who commit suicide. At the end of his report about Williams, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith speculated as to why he committed suicide, saying, “And yet, something inside you is so horrible or you’re such a coward or whatever the reason that you decide you have to end it.” He later apologized for his statement, one that was likely a heat of the moment incident. His slip-up pales in comparison to that of KISS bassist Gene Simmons, who in an interview with SongFacts.com gave his own commentary about suicide and depression. Simmons said:

“For a putz 20-year-old kid to say, ‘I’m depressed. I live in Seattle.’ F—k you, then kill yourself. I never understand, because I always call them on their bluff. I’m the guy who says ‘Jump’ when there’s a guy on top of a building who says, ‘That’s it, I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to jump.’ Are you kidding? Why are you announcing it. Shut the f—k up, have some dignity and jump! You’ve got the crowd. By the way, you walk up to the same guy on a ledge who threatens to jump and put a gun to his head, ‘I’m going to blow your f—kin’ head off.’ He’ll go, ‘Please don’t.’ It’s true. He’s not that insane.”

Clearly, Simmons has always sat comfortably in the 5 out of 6 people who have never had to personally deal with major depression, though his aloofness is far beyond any reasonable standard. His comments, besides being incredibly ignorant and exceptionally unfeeling, are also potentially quite harmful, considering his status as a bona fide rock star. Any of his fans listening in could take that advice to fatal lengths, and Simmons doesn’t realize that. Chastising and insulting the mindset of people who suffer from depression or have suicidal thoughts is not going to help them recover. It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell you that kicking people when they’re down will only make them sink deeper into the mental anguish that agonizes them so.

We are not here to judge Robin Williams. We should be here to celebrate his life and his achievements, and appreciate a man that gave so much to so many. Like a brilliant supernova, his light has shone on us all, each and every one, and now we are left in the aftermath, the universe a slightly darker place without him.

Like the old saying goes, “Be kind: for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Reach the columnist at hfinzel@asu.edu

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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