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Wishful thinking: We must set aside stigmas of depression

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By Sam Smith

As someone who has depression, I have an appreciation for people with good humor — they have a willingness to be in the moment, to suspend disbelief, to provide a remedy for the mundane or insufferable by setting you aside from your darkest moments and making you laugh.

When Robin Williams spoke about his own mental illness, it was a service to people on their own remote realms who felt like silence was the best treatment for the “all dark,” “all spreading,” and “unfathomably deep” sensations Virginia Woolf once described before she took her own life. Whether Williams suffered more than he entertained can only be speculated. What can be known is that his suffering is over and his legacy is always within reach, be it in a genie lamp on the outskirts of Agrabah or standing on a desk in front of the Dead Poets Society.

Well before I knew what depression was, Robin Williams was making me laugh. At 5, I watched Toys and didn’t realize his character’s love for a “tradition of whimsy” matched his own. I grew up watching him preserve that tradition of whimsy: watching Jumanji and The Birdcage; revisiting Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire; discovering Good Will Hunting and What Dreams May Come.

As I got older, there were times Robin Williams was making me laugh and cry. There was a depth of sincerity in his acting that conveyed a genuine investment in not only the role but his audience. There was a shared commonality in many of his roles. He often played someone whose outward appearance was in conflict with his identity if not his humanity. The alien, the android, the photo technician. The father dressed as the nanny. The boy trapped in a man’s body. The man in paradise without his soulmate. His characters often seemed doomed but were able to evolve with a vital celebration and grasp of the life around them.

One scene that has always struck a chord with me is in Dead Poets Society.

Williams played an English teacher, John Keating, advising a student to confront his strict father and defend his love for acting.

His student asks, “Isn’t there an easier way?”

Mr. Keating says, “No.”

“I am trapped.”

“No, you’re not.”

In high school, I related very much to the student, Neil. At the time, I was in the closet and very much like him — a student who felt trapped and feared rejection from his family if he embraced what made him happy. Mr. Keating told him he wasn’t trapped, but Neil eventually decided that suicide was the only answer. It takes a great deal out of me when I hear about people taking their lives. I have never reached a point where I attempted suicide, but I have known enough of those feelings that could have led me there if I felt too detached from good friends, family, and a couple of hours to write the “all dark”-ness into submission.

Unfortunately, depression isn’t something that can be wished away. I doubt any genie could manage such a task. There is treatment. There are remedies. There is less damaging stigma and silence each time someone acknowledges it. Even in an age that to this day shows rampant, militant discrimination and fear of those who are different, there is a growing and much-needed disdain for silence. Talking about depression may never be enough, but it is a start.

To quote another Robin Williams film, The World’s Greatest Dad: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

Depression is not a mood or a phase or a cry for attention. If you feel it, speak about it. If you see it in others, don’t consider them weak. Depression can leave you feeling completely trapped, alone on a planet with billions of people and animals and better ideas than isolation. No one who can champion against that feeling is weak. No one who succumbs to it is weak. There are only survivors and losses, and they are all strong.

I have been lucky. Whenever I feel trapped, I know I can reach out and talk to a friend or a family member. When I’m especially lucky, I can journey inward and find something to help me reconnect — usually, it’s my own twisted sense of humor; sometimes, it’s as simple as breathing and watching a movie or reading a book.

It’s dangerous to give in to the voice saying, “I am trapped.” I owe it to people like Robin Williams who have helped me discover it can become easy to shut out that voice with a good laugh, to say, “No you’re not.” I can still feel trapped, but that doesn’t mean I have to surrender in whatever room my mind may leave me feeling cornered.

I’ll close this condolence with another scene in Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating instructs each student to line up and stand on his desk to appreciate perspective.

“Don’t just walk off the edge like lemmings,” he says. “Look around you.”

I beg any of you who feel trapped to reach out. I’m here for you — and I bet I’m not the only one. Look around you.

Sam Smith is the Editorial Assistant for the LaFollette Press. Email him at ssmith@lafollettepress.com