The world today is a less funny place than it was yesterday, because Robin Williams is no longer among us. It seems that, at the age of 63, Williams took his own life after losing a long battle with depression. Today many are asking what, as a successful, wealthy man with a loving family, many friends and adoring fans the world over, Robin Williams, of all people, had to be depressed about. These people don't get it, but that's okay, depression isn't an easy thing to understand from the inside, even less so from the outside, and it is a problem that we tend to want to brush under the rug. This is especially true in the UK, where there is still something of a cultural tendency to say that people who are depressed should just get over it; adopt the 'typical' British characteristic of the stiff upper lip.
We need to understand more about depression, we need to see it as the illness it is (it's not just a vague feeling of sadness) and we need to treat it both more seriously and better. Why did I (and, to some degree, do I) struggle with depression? I'm sure I could list a lot of answers, but ultimately it's probably not any one of them but the combination, along with the fact that I am, at some level, pre-disposed to suffer depression.
Since I first started meeting other film critics I have become good friends with many of them and I've talked with some of them about my own issues with depression. At first I was surprised to find many people who would nod and say 'yeah, me too'. Then I thought about it. Of course film criticism attracts many people who have or have had this illness, consider what we do; we sit in a dark room and, for two hours at a time, escape our own worlds to enter someone else's. I can't think of many things more attractive to a depressed person. I think this also goes some way to explaining why many actors seem to have experiences with depression, they too get to escape their own lives for periods of time.
The sad clown is beyond trite as an image, but few clichés become prevalent without an essential grain of truth to them. I think you could always see, in Robin Williams' comedy and especially in his live work, the fact that comedy can be a shield for people who otherwise find it difficult to deal with the world. The idea is that if you can deflect something, turn it into a joke, it can't hurt you. A lot of the time it works, but apparently this and whatever other coping mechanisms he had failed yesterday for Robin Williams. That's something it's going to be hard to deflect with a joke. It hurts, and that's a measure, I think, of why people are struggling to understand his depression. Couldn't he SEE, couldn't he FEEL the affection people had for him?
I'm far from a comedian, but I often use humour as a coping mechanism myself. Anxiety disorders such as the one I've had issues with hit at the heart of your self-confidence and one way to respond to that is with a self-deprecating joke. When someone makes a self-deprecating joke and says 'just getting that one in before you did', chances are they're not kidding. Just to be clear, I don't need an intervention, most of the time I'm fine. I have good days and bad days. The bad days are perhaps more extreme than most people's, but they're rare now and I find I can pull out of my down periods more easily these days.
One of the things to which I credit my (drug free) ability to cope better with my own mental health ups and downs is cinema. I may rant here from time to time (actually I may rant here a lot, but still), but there are still few things as joyous for me as seeing a truly great film or having a truly great experience at the cinema. I always want to find the next moment like that, and on the odd, long ago, occasion that's kept me going. I may not have been the biggest Robin Williams fan, but he's had a part in my experience of cinema since I was a kid and I owe him for that. I also owe him for giving us a space to talk about these issues. I only wish it hadn't had to happen quite like this.