by Alex Sellick
The Lance – Arts Editor
I was first introduced to Robin Williams as a hilariously funny guy. I first saw Robin Williams in The Birdcage. I kid you not, my parents and I would watch The Birdcage together when I was little despite its Restricted rating.Then my mother made me watch Patch Adams with her a few hundred times and I saw how Williams could translate humour to work in a drama and create such a heartfelt character.
Williams starred in many films in 1991, the year I was born, and continued to make films up until his death (Absolutely Anything will feature his voice in 2015). I grew up on Robin Williams. From my first R-rated movie experience to still re-watching Disney’s Jumangi to this day, I’m only just now realizing now how versatile his acting was.
After the announcement of the death the internet was filled with a flurry of Aladdin memes which were all very touching, however Williams was nominated for four Oscars and won for best supporting role for Good Will Hunting. Although I believe that he always found some way to bring his dry humour into even the most dramatic of roles, he was not just the voice of a big blue genie in a lamp, he was a prominent actor who could make us both laugh and cry.
When celebrity figures die there is always an uproar in the media. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this year of a drug overdose, it seemed like everyone was shocked and saddened, but not surprised. Everyone took it for another Hollywood death. When prominent British model and journalist Peaches Geldof (daughter of Bob Geldof) died in April of a heroin overdose and the evidence was released to prove it, the media ran stories of how her mother also died of a heroin overdose and that it was only a matter of time before we saw Peaches go down that road herself. When an actor dies of a drug overdose it seems as though nobody accuses them of being selfish or cowardly but rather their death was merely the result of the celebrity life style.
When the details of Williams’ death were released, the headlines began throwing around a lot of disconcerting views on suicide and mental illness. Suddenly all media outlets and blogs wanted to judge the circumstances of the actor’s death prematurely, even though many did not know he was suffering from depression and other illnesses. I found millions of tweets, a ton of blog posts and several journalistic articles which claimed that suicide and the taking of one’s own life is an act of cowardice and selfishness. What is worse is that Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin, was receiving tweets and messages to her personal social media accounts telling her that her father was selfish and cowardly in taking his own life.
I had the chance to speak to Jordynne Ropat, the president of the University of Windsor Mental Health Awareness association, about the philosophy of her club surrounding mental illness and suicide.
“Many people who don’t understand depression think that it’s a minor sadness that can be cured with yoga or a particularly beautiful sunset,” said Ropat. “However, as we’ve seen recently with the death of Robin Williams, depression is a serious illness that can sometimes be fatal. It is important to recognize that the path to suicide is paved with many, many internal battles. It is not unlike a lengthy fight with cancer – there can be periods of joy and positive results and celebration, but inevitably there are also many dark periods.”
I had personally not heard rumours of Williams’ battle with depression so his death came as a shock to me. But upon hearing that he had committed suicide I felt deeply saddened and confused as to how such a brilliant actor could have wanted to take his own life.
The truth is, that we can never really know the true circumstances of other people’s lives. I thought it was horrible that the media and people on social networking sites could attack Williams’ children when they already have to deal with the death of their father publicly. My parents just watched The Angriest Man in Brooklyn and were deeply moved by how much it paralleled the reports of the actor’s own life and struggle with depression. However we cannot fully understand what truly led Robin Williams to his life and I think we should be focusing on raising awareness for mental illness not criticizing someone who was clearly struggling.
“To reach the point of suicide is to have fought through countless dark periods and to have come to the decision that life simply isn’t worth living anymore. It’s not a selfish decision; it is the result of so much struggle and pain and attempts to recover,” said Ropat. “The stigma of depression and suicide – perpetuated by phrases like ‘committed suicide,’ as if it was a crime – can worsen ones’ struggle because they may feel that they have no one to turn to that truly understands the pain that they are experiencing. I’ve never heard anyone refer to the death of a cancer patient as ‘selfish’ – most people understand that death from cancer is due to a culmination of fights to the point that the body simply cannot go on. Depression, too, it is the result of a long fight with a disease that wouldn’t give up. If there is any positive outcome of Robin William’s death, it is the possibility that more people understand that even someone so successful, seemingly so happy, can be fighting such a dark battle.”
Williams’ death hasn’t only sparked hatred and condemnation. After his wife, Susan Schneider, released statements saying that the late actor was suffering from multiple illnesses, many of his fans took to social media to raise awareness for mental health and to donate to mental health organizations. As Williams remained a very charitable actor throughout his life (he even donated his handmade Pegoretti bike to the Drever Family Foundation just weeks before his death) his fans have begun raising awareness for mental health charities in honour of his life. All over the world screenings of his films are being put on to raise money for charity.
It is impossible to judge someone for their struggles. Robin Williams spent his life making us laugh and entertaining us. He donated countless hours of his time to charity and raised three children. It is so important to remember that mental illness is a very real disease and to judge someone for what they cannot control is unfair. I think that public deaths related to suicide and depression should lead us to think about the stigmas the media creates surrounding these issues and what we can do to raise awareness about them.
Let us remember Robin Williams, the great he has accomplished, the influences he has bestowed and the pivotal actor he was.