For better or for worse, popular culture has become more and more intrinsically connected to our every-day reality over the past century. As we moved from the golden age of cinema, to the advent of television, through the insurgence of the internet into a mobile and social media shaped world – we developed an increasingly deep fondness for our actors, musicians, athletes and media personalities. Though most of us have never met them (nor likely ever will), we feel a profound connection to pop-culture icons; be it through the art they create, the achievements they amass, or the difference they try to make in the lives of others.
Robin Williams passing on Monday, the result of a suicide following a battle with severe depression, left many people distraught and in shock. It inspired a renewed, yet somehow new and different conversation about mental illness – one that only ever seems to arise when someone so well known, so widely renowned and so dearly loved has left us in such a tragic and terrible way. Though it is positive to see people talking about mental illness in this frank, curious and open way, it is also important to keep the conversation going – even once the wounds have healed and as we begin to carry on with life as usual. As it’s often said, history repeats itself, and we have a collective habit of forgetting about these kinds of things until they resurface and rear their ugly heads once more.
Rock and Roll icon Billy Joel, best known for his hit song “The Piano Man”, suffered from a severe bout of depression following a downturn in his early career and a failed relationship. At the age of 21 he attempted to commit suicide – but was rushed to the hospital by his drummer assistant, placed on suicide watch, and was treated for depression. He was luckily able to recover. Joel continued to suffer from substance abuse problems throughout his career and checked into rehab twice, once in 2002 and again in 2005. His song Tomorrow is Today chronicles the details of his suicide letter and You’re Only Human was recorded as a message to help prevent teen suicide.
April 5, 1994:
Kurt Cobain, frontman of the popular Grunge-Rock band Nirvana, commits suicide at the age of 27 – following a battle with bi-polar disorder and a longstanding heroin addiction. Cobain suffered from a debilitating stomach condition for most of his life, and had chronic bronchitis as a child. He also had a prolific family history of mental illness, notably with two of his uncles committing suicide years before him. At the end of his suicide note, Cobain wrote of his daughter, “for Frances, for her life will be so much happier without me.”
Jan 22, 2008:
Heath Ledger, a popular actor and director, is found dead in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 28. The official cause was ruled an accidental overdose from a combination of prescription medications – including two different narcotic based pain medications, two different anti-anxiety sedatives, a sedative used to treat insomnia, and a sedative-based anti-histamine. Friends and colleagues reported after his passing that Ledger was experiencing debilitating insomnia and depression for the weeks, months and possibly even years leading up to his death – potentially exacerbated by the role of the psychopathic Joker he played in the movie The Dark Knight.
May 13, 2011:
Derek Boogaard, an enforcer with the New York Rangers, dies at the age of 28 from an accidental overdose resulting from the combination of alcohol and oxycodone. Boogaard’s behavior grew increasingly erratic leading up to his passing – with periods of mania and depression speculated to have been caused by numerous concussions through his career as well as his recent incidence of post-concussion syndrome. Upon investigation of his brain tissue post mortem, it was revealed Boogard showed advanced signs of CTE, a brain degeneration caused by repeated concussive trauma. It would likely have led him to experience the onset of middle-age dementia.
Aug 15, 2011:
Rick Rypien, a fourth-line forward with the Winnipeg Jets, commits suicide at the age of 27 – following a decade long battle with depression – presumably onset by the death of his girlfriend in a tragic car accident in 2002. Rypien suffered numerous injuries and behavioral issues throughout his career – including a number of run-ins with the league’s disciplinary and substance abuse and programs. He also took a handful of leaves of absence to deal with his mental health issues – though friends and colleagues reported he seemed the happiest they’d ever seen him in the weeks and months leading up to his passing.
Aug 31, 2011:
Wade Belak, a recently retired enforcer who played his last games with the Nashville Predators, reportedly commits suicide at the age of 35 – making him the last of three players to pass away in the 2011 offseason, and the second to take his own life; just over two weeks after the passing of Rypien. It was revealed after his death that Belak had been suffering from depression for at least the previous five years; but unlike the two others to pass before him, he did not have a reported issue with discipline or substance abuse.
Feb 2, 2014:
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a widely respected film and stage actor, is found deceased in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 46. Hoffman had been sober for over 20 years prior to a relapse in 2012. He entered rehab for his drug abuse problems in 2013 and was seen by all accounts to be managing his sobriety well. His autopsy revealed a cocktail of different substances in his bloodstream and a significant amount of heroin and prescription drugs were found in close proximity to his body. He battled depression throughout his acting career.
All it takes is a quick search on Google to find a seemingly endless repository of other famous individuals who suffer from mental illness; ranging from depression to bi-polar disorder, anxiety to eating disorders. The struggles that celebrities have with substance abuse are perhaps even more well-documented, though one could easily argue that too is a form – or at the very least a symptom of – some type of mental illness; some undiagnosed, others kept under wraps for fear of stigmatization. And it’s all too easy to treat these events as isolated incidents, caused by the pressures of being famous, or resulting from having too much money and needing an outlet to burn it. But the truth is, these incidents are not unrelated, they’re not isolated and they happen recurrently, every day, to people from all walks of life.
We feel so deeply when a person we come to know, respect, and admire either makes the decision to end their life, or is taken from us through what might seem like utterly preventable circumstances such as overdose. It is almost akin to losing a dear friend or family member. But what we don’t seem to feel in nearly the same way are the members of the general public who go on to suffer the same fate, or the disenfranchised and homeless individuals for whom this inner torment is part and parcel to their daily existence.
This is not to detract from the tragic passing of Robin Williams nor is it to criticize the pain we all feel at the news of his death. Nor does it detract from the passing of any of the prominent individuals whose stories are detailed above. What it does say is that we as a society have come to a defining moment where we have to be willing to stand up and fight for those people, from all backgrounds, who suffer from the clutches of addiction and mental illness. It highlights the reality that if those people, who seem to have everything going for them, can experience this kind of downward spiral – it can truthfully (and does really) happen to anyone.
One in four people experience some kind of mental illness at some point in their lives, either transient or chronic. And when it comes to homeless populations, the number rises to higher than four in five. Nearly one in five people in Canada will report a substance abuse problem over their lifetime – and it is suspected to be higher than two in three for the homeless. An important caveat to keep in mind though, is that only 2-3% of those cases represent confirmed diagnoses, as those who require mental health services the most are often the last to get access.
The silver lining in all of this though (if we can really call it that), is that both substance abuse problems and issues with mental health can be controlled, and often overcome. But in order for this to happen we need to come together and break down the barriers that prevent people from getting the treatment and support that they need. We need to acknowledge the battles that have been fought and lost by people like Robin Williams, and we need to take up arms in their memory and to continue fighting where they couldn’t bear to fight any longer. Moreover, we need to understand the pain we as a public feel at their loss is only a fraction of what the loved ones of any victim of suicide feel – millions of them on a daily basis. The scars are so pronounced because it’s virtually impossible to comprehend what must have been going through their tortured minds in those final painful moments.
Our biggest collective failure is that we mourn these unnecessary deaths and then we move on. Our greatest success will come the day where we seek to understand, rather than avoid – where we embrace the truth, and debunk the myths – where we accept that this is an illness and not some overwhelming stigma that anyone need feel ashamed or afraid of. The greatest enemy to a sufferer is isolation, feeling like a burden, or feeling like they can’t be honest about their pain for fear of not being understood or being judged. The greatest friend is inclusion, compassion, and understanding – for any sufferer – be they the highest profile celebrity or the most disenfranchised and impoverished soul.
Perhaps the best metaphor we can use to describe the conversation about mental health is that it’s a large boulder sitting at the base of a steep hill. One person alone cannot nudge it even the slightest bit forward – but with the support of an entire army, it can be started rolling. And we can keep it going, so long as that army keeps on pushing. But once we cross the apex of that slope, we know that momentum will finally carry the conversation on its own – bringing it ever closer to where it needs to go, bringing our understanding to where it needs to be.
We’re just now understanding of the troubled life that Robin Williams led, but we also celebrate an incredibly kind and compassionate soul. He was a serial philanthropist and well known friend of the homeless. He did important work with the charity Comic Relief, beginning in 1986, visited and performed at homeless shelters around America, and lobbied in a congressional hearing about homelessness in 1990. A number of his movies also touched directly on the topic of homelessness, and issues of mental health – including a riveting and critically acclaimed portrayal of a homeless man suffering from severe PTSD in The Fisher King; a deluded, lonely and introverted victim of childhood sexual abuse in One Hour Photo, and an Academy Award winning performance of a psychiatrist caught up in the unresolved grief of childhood abuse, and an inability to move on from the death of his wife in Good Will Hunting.
So, as he would want, we need to keep talking. Not just about the tragic death of Robin Williams, or any other high profile individual who comes up in the news or on social media – but about everyone – from our friends and loved ones, to our brothers and sisters on the street, whose life circumstances have left them, for whatever reason, impoverished, in pain, and searching for hope in what might seem like a painful and hopeless existence.