A strange thing happened when Robin Williams hanged himself in 2014.
As one of, if not the most devastating suicide deaths of the decade – it was felt around the world by everybody who had grown up watching his performances in film and on the stage… But none more so than by those who suffer from depression.
It is said that his departure left an ‘unprecedented’ mark on all suicide hotlines – something suicide prevention experts are still trying to make sense of. When any high-profile suicide occurs, mental health experts fear what they refer to as a contagion effect – in this case, a spike in the suicide rate. This same thing occurred in 1962 with the probable suicide of Marilyn Monroe… But this time, given that resources for those at risk have grown enormously in the fifty(+) years since Monroe died, there was a very drastic spike, instead.
In July 2014, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the UNITED STATES was receiving approximately 3500 calls a day. That number rose to over 10 500 the day after Williams’s death.
It remained about 50% higher than usual for a week and, in the years since, has set a new baseline for what the organization considers normal.
In contrast – When Kurt Cobain shot himself in 1994, the suicide rates in Seattle went down, instead of up.
So, what’s the difference? In a 1996 study published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, psychologist David A. Jobes argued that crisis centers and responsible media coverage helped stave off a copycat epidemic.
“Much has changed since Cobain died,” says Robert Gebbia, the CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). “The stigma of discussing suicide has faded somewhat since 1994, and social media has become a major venue for talk about depression.”
“I think there was a lot more information about causes, resources, the notion that this is something that could be prevented in many cases,” Gebbia says. “We saw less sensational reporting.”
There were exceptions, like stories calling Williams’s death “a cowardly act” or questioning why anyone with money and fame would be driven to suicide. This played a small role in my own 2014 slump – I felt the death of Robin Williams as I would feel a part of myself dying. It wasn’t that I knew the man, of course, nor was it that I was a huge fan – I’m not. It wasn’t that the only time I’ve ever been made to cry like a little girl while watching a film was during one of his. Neither of these things factored higher than this simple fact: I am a depressed human being.
When he punched out, it may have felt to most of us as if he’d thrown in the towel in a life-long fight – one that we were still slugging away at. Here we had a man, known for his comedic roles, capable of making us laugh and forget, capable of triggering emotions in other human beings – a person of wealth and fame, a family man, smiling on the outside…
But on the inside…
It was the death felt around the world, and it sent shock-waves through the depressed. It resonated in our hearts and the back of our minds. The single thought – “Well, Jesus, if he couldn’t make it out… What chance do the rest of us have?” is what simultaneously shattered our hope and united all who suffered from depression together in our hopelessness.
“In past times, people were afraid to talk about this,” Robert Gebbia says. “People were afraid to admit that they made a suicide attempt, or hid the fact that they lost a loved one to suicide. But I think all that is changing. The Robin Williams story is a part of that change.”
Of course, it’s now been revealed that Williams suffered from Parkinson’s and a debilitating brain disease called Lewy Body Dementia – which doctors believe “was the critical factor” that led to his suicide. A year later his widow echoed this diagnosis, saying that Williams’s suicide was not motivated by depression, and that if he was lucky, he would have maybe survived another three years.
I wrote recently, in my review of David Bowie’s final album, BLACK STAR:
“There’s this Latin phrase; De mortuis nil nisi bonum – and it means, “Of the dead, nothing unless good.”
It basically suggests that to speak ill of the dead would be considered inappropriate. Sigmund Freud wrote:
“We assume a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done, and issue the command, De mortuis nil nisi bene: we act as if we were justified in singing his praises at the funeral oration, and inscribe only what is to his advantage on the tombstone. This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.”
So, why are we affected so much by the death of someone we don’t really know, who has no idea we exist, and frankly, probably couldn’t have cared less?
“They’ve been a part of our lives. We see them on TV, they’re in our living rooms, we feel we know them, and we incorporate them almost as though they’re part of our families, though most of us recognize that they’re not,” says Alan Hilfer, chief of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. “It is perfectly normal to be saddened by the passing of a celeb we love and admire.”
I remember when Heath Ledger passed, and how shocking it seemed that such a talented, healthy young man would suddenly vanish from our lives forever. As a fan of his work – and who isn’t a fan of his incredible Joker performance? – I found myself taking it personally. A part of me said, he’s a celebrity. Who really gives a shit, I didn’t know him? Talented people die every day. Father’s die every day. In absolute obscurity.
But, he was a person. Somebody who reminded me of my own story, through the characters he played. Somebody who reminded me of people I knew, whose words we summoned again and again to match any situation.
The shocking truth is, we live in such an isolated age.
The idyllic family picture most people seem to have – of three generations living together forever under one roof – has become archaic. In this new age, we’re a lot more likely to find somebody dead a while, alone in a messy apartment with their starving pets gnawing at them. Isolated people, empty alcoholics, eccentric geniuses, those who suffer in silent frenzy – knowing that something else might be wrong with them.
The world has changed; there’s this lack of communication in an age where communication is easily enough accessible. Whole families sit at a restaurant table on with their faces glued to phones and tablets, using the free WiFi to surf the internet instead of speaking to one another. We’re constantly surrounded and yet so alone that weeks can pass by before your neighbours catch a whiff of your decomposing body.
In a world like this, most people may find themselves feeling a lot closer to the Heath Ledger’s and the Alan Rickman’s and the Terry Pratchett’s and the David Bowie’s of the world than they do to their own family or friends. This is natural, now, in a society which doesn’t feel natural or significant at all.
The loss is so much greater to us when we can identify with that person. Whether it be fighting depression all your life, fighting cancer all your life, fighting alzheimer’s or parkinson’s – whether you’re a writer or a musician or an artist or just somebody who can escape through film, television, literature or music after a long, hard day of adulthood. Maybe Alan Rickman will always be Professor Snape to you, and maybe that’s what got you through the day, or made you believe in love again. Maybe Bowie’s music got you through some horrific time in your life, or perhaps his turn as The Goblin King, and his crotch, was the defining moment where you realized you weren’t a little girl anymore, but a hot-blooded woman.*
Researchers have studied the responses of fans to celebrities’ deaths, and their grief has been found to be neither self-indulgent nor dishonest. Clinically, it appears no different to the grief that someone experiences after the loss of a loved one. The death of a celebrity reminds us that even the great and good die. You’re quickly reminded of your own mortality.
Alan Hilfer says “there are some people whose reactions to celebrity deaths are so obsessional and extreme that it can literally make them sick.”
Celebrities, to some, are capable of filling that void which the people around us no longer can, or would care to do.
“Sometimes,” says Hilfer, “such people suffer from underlying conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or personality disorder. In general, they’re more fragile than most people and I worry that, in the case of suicide, they will see what the celebrity did and decide that, if the celebrity did that with all they had, then it’s a valid alternative for them as well.”
There’s that flawed way of thinking again. A type of thinking that pulls you down into a hole. I remember, some years ago, speaking to a young woman I know who suffered from depression for as long as she could remember. We were sitting outside on the balcony, three floors up and looking down at the pavement below.
“How do you identify yourself?” I asked.
… … “I am depressed,” she said.
Hidden behind those words, was a sense of safety. She had claimed an identity, and that, to her, was important, in the crazy, half nightmare world she inhabited. I gently steered the conversation round to who she thought she would be without the depression.
A look of quickly stifled fear flitted across her face, her hands twisting around the edge of her dress, and her feet – the ultimate betrayer – tapped impatiently. Her conscious body was terrified of letting go of that comfort, of having an identity, of being something… But her feet wanted to run. All set to leave Minora-Valley far behind. They wanted to reach the hills and dance till dawn, and pace upon foreign beaches.
Was she really worth it? Did she deserve to have a life of her own? Her infirm and demanding parents, her controlling lovers and her manipulative best friends – was she being selfish to them?
All the scars are still there.
When Robin Williams died, she cried for days until she vomited. She barely ate. She barely slept. She avoided all social media, television and magazines. She knew it wouldn’t be long before the media vultures began to fabricate his ‘last words’ or speculate or blame or romanticize. The pavement down below began to look more and more appealing.
Through depression, it felt as if she’d known him, personally, and could relate to him in every possible way.
One of the problems with grief over celeb deaths, according to Richard Harris, a psychology professor who studies civilian-celebrity relationships, is that “unlike real-life mourning, there is no social support for such grieving. People laugh at you for being emotional about the death of someone you didn’t even know.”
Speaking of ‘social’ – here’s one of my biggest problems with social media…
Wait, before I get to that – football fans will all be familiar with the name of Aaron Ramsey, the Welshman currently playing for Arsenal FC.
But what you might not be familiar with is a little thing the internet is calling the Aaron Ramsey Curse. Basically, when Aaron Ramsey scores for Arsenal – a celebrity fucking dies.
When Ramsey scores, the UK wrap all their icons in bubblewrap for a couple of days.
Coincidence? Of course it is. Don’t be stupid.
But the internet, and social media will find a way to make you believe. Here’s what annoys me most;
“With the ability to share in the death and grief on social networks there is a feeling of needing to be a part of that. There is a sense of community in those who are grieving together by posting thoughts on social media. It is almost as if we are a part of it sharing our own thoughts and experiences for others to read. Stating the connection between yourself and the celebrity maybe through work, meeting socially or as a fan, how they supported something you did for charity. A sense that they have gone and no-one will be talented enough to take their space and so we cling on to who they were, what they did, how we connected with them and what they meant to us.”
That’s all Samantha Jeffries, of the Huffington Post. Now, I’m not attacking Samantha, but… share in the death? needing to be a part of that? Jesus. That all seems a little disjointed, and more disturbing than that, it’s just not close to the truth. There are isolated instances of sincerity, but what really occurs over every social network platform is this:
People have this strange need, a need to be the one who breaks the news first. Most of the time, it hasn’t even been confirmed. Remember how many times Morgan Freeman has died?
This article probably covers everything I’ve got to say on that:
What the fuck is wrong with people. Most of the time, the #GoneButNotForgotten and #YouWillBeMissed hashtags are broken out before the news is confirmed, or even worse – before the body has cooled. Are we really paying tribute to the deceased, or do we have a deeper yearning to be part of a trending topic? Are we chasing like’s and retweets, when a human being has died? What do we deem as ‘insincere’ grief and should real grief be private? Does social media give us a sense of community? Why are you speaking directly to Whitney Houston in your facebook status? She can’t read the status, yo, she’s dead.
But, I digress too much.
Here’s where my head is at, from Eva Wiseman of the Guardian:
“The worry is that we’re self-identifying, and making a stranger’s death all about us. Projecting our own little concerns on to the blankness of a screen. The worry is that it reveals our own emptiness, our desperation for a feeling or thrown scrap of one. Or that we are so porous and sad that a stranger’s experiences is enough to topple us. Either way, it’s embarrassing. It’s undignified. And yet it keeps on happening.
Are we practising? Using celebrities like dolls to play out the way we might feel when we lose the people we actually love? Is our obsession with the deaths of beautiful people, our compulsive consumption of stories about their final days, a way of preparing for real feelings, real loss? All those flowers in Kensington. All those RIPs.”
Did the death of Robin Williams have an affect on me?
Yes, it did.
But I didn’t spend the next few weeks photoshopping his face onto the body of an angel. Here’s a hashtag for you… #SoFuckingWeird. Stop it.
Times like these should give us the opportunity to stop and think about our own lives and what we’ve been doing with all our time. It should be about appreciating those we care about while we still have them, while they’re still in front of us, sitting across the restaurant table.
It shouldn’t be seen as an opportunity for attention-seekers to let everybody around them know that they were a die-hard fan of the deceased before it was trending.
The work these people have given us can touch us. We can relate to the lyrics, we envy their talents, they have moved us to tears and feelings of deep inadequacy. They have made us laugh, and think, and love. They’ve given us the soundtracks to our lives, they’ve given us memories… and on a personal note, perhaps, they’ve taught you much about yourself.
We know all about their relationships, marriages and divorces. Their rehab stints. Their fall from grace and their rise from the ashes. Their public shaming. We know the names of their children, their diet plans. We have seen their images and words twisted in the hands of the media. We’ve seen their careers bloom. We’ve seen David Hasselhof trying to eat a burger while drunk. We’ve seen their leaked nudie photos. We know what’s in their makeup bags. We know the address of their Hollywood mansions. Heat magazine has shown us photos of them eating, and sunbathing, and getting out of the limo with no panties on. We’ve seen their cellulite. We’ve seen their morgue photographs. We’ve read their last words.
Though the relationship we’ve had with these people has been one-sided, all along, your grief is not unwarranted. Just… don’t make it about you. When all the stars go dark one day, it’s not about you.
I’ll still cry like a girl every time I watch Bicentennial Man… But, even as the tears stream down my face, I’ll think of something funny Robin Williams once did, before the world only saw him as a demented, depressed, strung-out old man at the end of a belt, and maybe, I’ll still laugh in the middle of a sob.