It may have been a year since Robin Williams' death sparked discussion of mental health, but that issue is still important today.
Health Politics/Community

On the Anniversary of Robin Williams’ Death, Mental Health Is Still Important

It may have been a year since Robin Williams' death sparked discussion of mental health, but that issue is still important today.
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By Ashley Van of More Than Cheese and Beer

I was sitting at home on Facebook when I saw the first post about Robin Williams’ passing. At first I dismissed it, as it wouldn’t be the first time there had been a celebrity death hoax on Facebook. I kept scrolling and saw it again, this time from a reputable news source.

It was less that an hour before the “RIP Robin Williams,” the memes, and the sad updates were everywhere. I logged off Facebook because I knew what was about to happen, and what was coming next was going to leave me upset. But you can only avoid it so long.

What was I avoiding? I was avoiding all of the messages of “support,” of how sad the situation was, of how people should get help. I was avoiding the “please come talk to me if you need help” posts from people who I felt lacked real empathy and were “reaching out” out of some sense of obligation and not a genuine desire to support people who know Robin Williams’ struggles on a more personal level. I was avoiding the observations and opinions about depression and suicide from people who clearly had no idea what the they were talking about and the statements reinforcing the stigma of mental illness that filled my newsfeed for days following his death.

I recently began talking about my current struggle with depression. It isn’t the first time I’ve struggled with this; I’ve been struggling with depression and self-harm since I was a teenager. I’ve been in the position to need to ask for help. I am no stranger to therapy. I am no stranger to anti-depressants, though to be honest, I usually give up on them before really feeling “helped.” I’m not an expert on depression, and I’m not trying to claim that I am. In my experience, sometimes what I find least comforting is actually of great support to another person. That is the beauty of this world — we’re all different. I’m just writing this as someone who has experienced the struggle with depression and knows what it is like to want to end it all.

When you suffer from an illness or affliction and you see someone “lose their battle,” it generates a lot of fear. Of course there is a lot of sadness as well, and that sadness is only exacerbated by the first-hand knowledge of what those feelings are like. I know what I feel like when I’ve self-harmed, and knowing the thoughts and feelings that go through my mind causes my chest to physically hurt to think that he probably felt and thought all of them in a way I never have leading up to his last moments. No one should die feeling that way, and my heart aches.

But behind that sadness is the fear that you yourself won’t be able to survive, that if the person who died couldn’t make it in spite of whatever they had going for them, whether it was fame, money, family, friends or a great personality, then what chance do you have? While death might serve as a reminder of mortality to a normal person, death by illness or affliction to a fellow sufferer is a double whammy of mortality, and the glaring fact that the thing you struggle with has claimed yet another victim — someone you might have even thought was better than you and yet not even they could find a way to survive it — is overwhelming.

Robin Williams made people laugh for a living. He brought so many people joy and so many people loved him, and he had the money to pay for the help he needed. If this is how it ended for him, what is to keep me from falling over that ledge too?

Maybe it is just me, but it is infuriating as someone currently struggling with depression who has admitted she needs help, can’t afford help, and who has to wait another 4 weeks to see her doctor to even begin to talk about things like medication (which I also can’t afford) to see messages offering “support” from people who I’ve seen make disparaging remarks about mental illness or say hurtful or insensitive things when they’ve been asked for support.

I’m willing to admit that I was a little bitter and felt let down because I saw so many people talking about Robin Williams and offering support — people who were less than approachable, receptive or compassionate when I tried to reach out to them for help. People who were supposed to be my friends. People who were supposed to care. I was hurt because I felt like some of those people didn’t support me when I needed them, but I was more scared knowing that someone might reach out to them only to end up feeling the same rejection I felt and not having other supportive people they could turn to.

It was so hurtful seeing people whom I thought cared about me posting disparaging remarks about Robin Williams being selfish and cowardly and belittling his struggles when I understood so much of it all too well, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “If I don’t make it, if that ends up being me, will they say those same things?” As I write this, I know that there are still some people I need to remove from my life immediately.

Looking at the internet today, on the anniversary of Robin Williams’ death, I see just as much stigma, judgment, and ignorance about the struggle that is living with mental illness as there was before Robin Williams’ death. I avoid news media and blogs because I find myself triggered. I am sure I am not the only one. But for all of the genuine help I’ve seen posted since his death, I still see a constant stream of negative opinions and judgments that make me not want to reach out to anyone, and that scares me for people who might not have the supportive people that I do.

Sadly, I think when talking about suicide and depression, the “niceties” contribute to the problem. When something tragic happens, people naturally fall back on the socially acceptable behaviors of offering up support, and the truth is that sometimes people offer support which they are unwilling to actually provide.

It is a crushing let-down when you’ve built up the courage to reach out to someone who has put themselves out there as willing to listen and be a friend for support, only to find they have no interest in being supportive, helpful, or understanding. Not everyone can handle emotional upset, and discussion about death, depression, self-harm and suicide can be very upsetting to some people. I’m not judging people who are emotionally or psychologically unable to handle that; all I ask is that people who are unable to really help forgo offering personal support to people who need it if they are incapable of or unwilling to actually provide that support.

There are people out there I know really want to help people who might be struggling. There are genuine, wonderful people who have been my warriors, my heroes and my champions time and time again. They are literally lifesavers, and I can’t even begin to express my appreciation, gratitude and love for those people. I want to see more of them and people like them. I want people who really do need a friend or a listening ear to be able to see these sincere people who are genuinely affected by sad deaths like Robin Williams’ and are reaching out in honesty to those who might need help — those who are getting lost in the sea of people who are just “saying what people say.”

To those of you who spend every day trying to help and approach this with sincere compassion and love, thank you. You save lives just by trying.

I wish I could tell the people who are being mean, condescending and enforcing stigma that one in ten people means there are pretty good odds that there is a Robin Williams in their lives who reads their posts calling the actions of a desperate man selfish and cowardly, and there is a good chance that person feels hurt and even more alone and ashamed than before.

The best advice I can give to those who genuinely want to reach out to people and perhaps might not know how is to read up about how to be an active listener, maybe do some reading on how to help/what to say to someone who is suicidal or suffering from depression, arm yourself with a box of tissues and phone numbers for resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, refrain from making judgments that would make people feel uncomfortable coming to you, and strive to be a person someone could come to in confidence. Most importantly, try asking how you can help someone. You don’t have to have all the right words. Most of the time you don’t even do anything except be there, let them know you care, and listen.

Don’t know what to say? Want to help people but don’t have the words? Unable to handle the complex thoughts and emotions about depression, self-harm and suicide? That is OK. You can still help people by simply sharing information from people who can.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.


About Ashley Van

Ashley Van is the sweary, sarcastic and occasionally serious Head Cheese at She is a Customer Service Superstar and Photo Editor by day and by night makes being single look like some kind of super power when she isn’t telling her sister’s children she has magical powers or reveling in being a childless, vodka drinking, introverted cat lady. She can be found writing about her passion for trying new things, sharing recipes, product reviews, her experiences living with chronic pain and depression, living on a budget and whatever else crosses her mind.