Robin Williams, SMH’s appalling op-ed and ABC’s new suicide prevention TV show

Robin Williams did not die because he was a “sad clown”. I’ll leave it to others more qualified than I am to analyse the relationship between comedians and depression; suffice to say it is a significant risk factor for suicide and yes – Williams suffered from it. But real life, when it comes to matters of the mind, rarely conforms to easy definitions and catch-all statements.

An utterly heartbreaking essay written by Williams’ widow, Susan Schneider Williams, was published in the scientific journal Neurology last week. It reminds us that on issues such as this nobody can really say what’s going on outside our own heads. And inside our own heads we often don’t know what’s going on either.

In a piece titled The terrorist inside my husband’s brain, the bereaved author outlines the complex conditions that led to the comedian’s death. Williams suffered from an extreme case of the little-known Lewy body disease (LBD). Doctors who reviewed his case described it as one of the worst pathologies they had ever seen, with almost none of his neurons free of Lewy bodies.

Susan Schneider Williams writes:

Some symptoms were more prevalent than others, but these increased in frequency and severity over the next 10 months. By wintertime, problems with paranoia, delusions and looping, insomnia, memory, and high cortisol levels—just to name a few—were settling in hard. Psychotherapy and other medical help was becoming a constant in trying to manage and solve these seemingly disparate conditions…

The parkinsonian mask was ever present and his voice was weakened. His left hand tremor was continuous now and he had a slow, shuffling gait. He hated that he could not find the words he wanted in conversations. He would thrash at night and still had terrible insomnia. At times, he would find himself stuck in a frozen stance, unable to move, and frustrated when he came out of it. He was beginning to have trouble with visual and spatial abilities in the way of judging distance and depth.

His loss of basic reasoning just added to his growing confusion. It felt like he was drowning in his symptoms.

In the public’s eye the basic narrative around Robin Williams’ death seemed to be this: the funny dude who burnt his fake boobs in Mrs Doubtfire got sad and killed himself. His widow paints a rather more detailed picture, about a man who was attacked relentlessly from within, physically and mentally, and fought very hard to stay with us.

After reading the essay I was reminded of an op-ed published by the Sydney Morning Herald soon after Williams’ death. I don’t know how to describe it without using words like “appalling”. Spewing with righteous indignation, the author wrote about how, by dying from suicide, Williams “has angered me” and “let this fan down”.

Let this fan down? That’s something you say when you wait in line for an hour and don’t get an autograph. I wonder if the writer has read Susan Schneider Williams’ essay. I wonder if he would feel comfortable with her reading the finger-pointing thing he wrote.

Needless to say, suicide is confusing for everybody. We all struggle to make sense of it. Emotions are myriad and people grieve in different ways. If a default position is possible, perhaps – no, surely – it is best to respond with compassion rather than judgement.

That’s what Triple M presenter Gus Worland did after he lost one of his best mates to suicide a decade ago. Worland has a new three-part ABC TV series Man Up, which premieres October 11. It addresses, in a sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down kind of way (sprinkled with humour and with the presenter’s endearing personality) the shockingly high rate of male suicide in Australia.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 15-44 years, eclipsing road accidents and cancer. Seventy-five percent of all suicides in this country are men. Eight people die by suicide every day.

The show’s thesis is that much of this has to do with expectations associated with traditional masculinity: the idea men harden or “man up” rather than talk about their problems. Gus visits a cattle station in WA and talks to fair-dinkum stockmen about why they don’t like discussing their feelings. He goes to a construction site in Queensland where, like any such site in Australia, employees are six times more likely to die by suicide than by workplace accidents.

Man Up presents a rather singular take on a complex phenomenon (caveat: I’ve only seen the first episode), but the work is unquestionably valuable. The underlying inference is that “macho” is an outdated word. At one point the narrator expresses an opinion that David Bowie experimented “with the gender neutral look”. I would put it a different way: that the legacy of artists such as Bowie and Queen reminds us that masculinity comes in many different forms.

If the show encourages men to talk, as I suspect it will, it is a beautiful thing. The premise nevertheless means Man Up can only brush the surface. Many mysteries abound. Men like myself, for example, we don’t know how a car engine works and we can’t ride a horse. We have loving friends and family. We understand the value in talking about things. We’re not that all concerned about being “manly”.

So why, sometimes, when we go to speak about something on our mind, in a safe space, knowing this can only do us good, we open our mouths and nothing comes out? Only air. It becomes very clear on these occasions that talking about your feelings is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.

Programs such as Man Up, or the ABC’s Mental As initiative, or even RUOK? Day, which don’t profess to solve anything but pledge to keep the ball rolling, can be easily shot down with a bit of smugness and intellectual posturing. The money spent to finance them would be better invested in X or Y and blah blah blah. The people making these arguments are generally not the same people on the ground trying to make a difference.

We see some of them in the first episode of Man Up, when Worland visits a Lifeline call centre. In August this year alone, the crisis support line answered more than 81,000 phone calls. It is currently trying to raise 100,000 online signatures. Those signatures will call on the government to double funding for suicide prevention and awareness programs.

If you or someone you know is in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. A detailed list of support services can be found here.

Photo courtesy of HotGossipItalia/Creative Commons

6 responses to “Robin Williams, SMH’s appalling op-ed and ABC’s new suicide prevention TV show

  1. I just wish I could go to all of those doctors that went on the TV as soon as Robin passed saying it was depression/sad clown/drugs/money etc.
    They did this without knowing the man and what was going on with him. They just wanted to get onto TV. I hope God some of them do go on and say how wrong they were and apologize to his family and those who were close to him. That is the only way they can make it right. God Bless Robin for being one of the best humanitarian – not just actor and comedian – that was on this earth.

  2. As a qualified counsellor I did part of my practicum in a retirement home, doing art therapy and running groups once a week. I believe there needs to be more of a focus on Lewy bodies disease, it’s one of those illnesses that they know little about like Huntington’s and MND it destroys peoples lives. I worked with a gentleman in his early 60’s that had been diagnosed only 12 months previously with Lewy bodies, he didn’t know his name and as soon as he sat down (which he had to be led to his seat) he would promptly fall asleep. I understand the need to focus on suicide prevention, but in Robin Williams case and many like him, he probably didn’t want to be in a position where he was losing his facalties bit by bit, until he would have to be hand fed and everything done for him. I suggest many of the countries in the Western World need to realise that euthanasia in these type of cases is not only humane but preferable to someone like Robin with a quick wit and a brilliant mind, (and many similar cases), being slowly erroded and turned into dependent vegetables is a form of torture for them, that they don’t want to inflict on their loved ones. It seems though that many people would never, be able to understand his situation (and others like him), which was abundantly clear, to his family and those that care.
    To me the most important discussion around this has been missed as we live in a society that views that it is more than happy to put a beloved pet down when that time comes, but when it comes to humans who just want some respite from slowly losing their minds and their facalties along with their identities, there is a vaccuum.
    What I got from a lot of the comments and the observation was that there was a certain level of selfishness on William’s part, and that his suicide was influential, but I suggest the reality is that no matter who these people are that lose their lives to suicide, the demons in them are far more destructive than those in the outside world could ever imagine. I suggest the media (particularly the SMH) need to take a closer look at what William’s was struggling with before they pass comment.
    I would hate to have a close relative suffer with many of the lesser known illnesses that slowly steal a persons, identity, capacity to interracte with their loved ones and the outside world, slowly but surely losingtheir minds and their ability to take care of themselves, becoming devoid of any awareness or anything that is going on around them. To me euthanasia and choices around this are far more important, in respect of helping those like Robin and his family to move forward and deal with this type of illness, in a state of awarenessand and compassion, before these people are forced (due to our ridiculous obsession with keeping people alive, no matter how tormented their existence may be) into an undignified, and tragic end, that their families may or may not recover from. But knowing much of the media this is all seen as grist for the mill which is at best unhelpful at worst hypercritical.

  3. Actors and comedians wear themselves out, giving everything in them to the audiences. Sure, they make a good wage, and deserve it, but money doesn’t cover the inner person. People like Williams and Pinette need something more, but whatever they seek fades quickly when the show is over.
    I only hope they know how badly they are missed!

  4. I attempted suicide about four years ago. The reasons don’t matter, but fundamentally sometimes there is no future past the endless grinding pain of now. For me suicide is a critique on society and a lack of options to keep your dignity intact.

  5. Absolutely agree. I too am a mother of sons & grandmother to boys. I have always encouraged the men in my life to talk about their problems but there aren’t enough listeners to go round. So many people think depression just needs a tablet to make it go away or someone to be a “good role-model” when it is possibly the most complex issue many face. I only hope this programme is as promising as it sounds.

  6. Great article Luke – perceptive and critical. As the mother of adult sons and grandsons and as a feminist it worries me that simplistic slogans and explanations about wellness and mental health don’t help – if Man Up helps everyone think more critically then it’s worth every moment of television time.

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