Robin Williams was one of the most beloved actors of my generation, which is largely due to his work in children’s entertainment throughout much of the 1990’s. I grew up watching him as Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin’s Genie, and the crazy scientist in Flubber.
Those in their late 20’s and 30’s know him as John Keating (Dead Poets Society) and Dr. Sean Maguire (Good Will Hunting). And of course our parents know him as Mork from Happy Days and Mork and Mindy.
Williams is part of a rare breed of entertainers. Very few have been able to touch the lives of so many through comedic and dramatic work for three generations. Of course, Robin had more misses than hits, but with a career that spanned well over forty years he left us with an impressive list of work.
As is often the case, Williams entertained while suffering through a lifetime of mental instability. In the second half of his life Robin was very honest about his battles with depression, drug addiction and alcoholism. He described himself as being grossly addicted to cocaine when he first became famous. After that he faced struggles with alcoholism on multiple occasions, entering rehabilitation centers twice in the last ten years alone.
At the core of all of Robin’s issues was his lifelong battle with depression. You may ask naively why a successful star like Robin Williams was depressed in the first place, but you must remember that he was only human. Every person struggling with depression can trace their mental issues back to their childhood. For Williams, it was the constant desire to gain attention and feel wanted by his parents. The only time he recalled ever feeling loved was when he could make then laugh. An example of this is seen when Robin described his family relationship while honoring his idol, Jonathon Winters:
“My father’s laughter introduced me to the comedy of Jonathan Winters. My dad was a sweet man, but not an easy laugh. We were watching Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show” on our black-and-white television, and on came Jonathan in a pith helmet…My dad and I lost it. Seeing my father laugh like that made me think, “Who is this guy and what’s he on?”
The discussion of mental illness as a serious issue has only become socially acceptable in the last decade. Celebrities, leaders and everyday people openly admitted to being depressed in a time when mental instability was labeled as “crazy”. While these people began the long path to acceptance, my generation picked up the broom and started clearing the way. We have come a long way because the youth of today are openly talking about being depressed on social media, and for the first time, supporting each other rather than destroying each other. I am very proud to say that we as Canadians are setting the tone for how to deal with mental illness. Every February we come together for ‘Bell Let’s Talk’, an intiative that raises awareness and money for mental health support. Provincial governments are also planning to double or even triple the amount if money invested into mental health support for youth.
The unfortunate part is that no matter the size of the issue, or how personal it can be, every social issue receives about fifteen minutes of fame before something else happens. Which is why it became unsettling when the discussion of mental health all but disappeared over the last year. The only people willing to make a difference were those who had depression and those who knew somebody that was mentally unstable and cared enough to make a difference.
Which is why Robin Williams’ death is unlike anything that has every happened before. My generation has never seen somebody we have watched and loved since birth be ripped away so suddenly. Especially when Robin remained such a relevant presence literally until the day he died. It got our attention. So we asked questions. Why did he die? Why did he choose to kill himself? Could he have been saved? The same questions that are always asked when somebody we loved dearly chooses to leave this world on a sad note.
But this time was different. This time it hit too close to home and made too many people uncomfortable. This time it got personal. We lost one of the most beloved and unique men in show business. We did not lose a movie star only our parents have heard of. We did not lose a celebrity known for fifteen minutes of fame that overdosed. This time, we lost one of our own. Way too soon. So now people are taking mental illness seriously. The discussion is real. The interest to help those around us is legitimate. We as a society are preparing ourselves for the realistic idea that more people need help than ever before.
Please understand that I am not endorsing Robin Williams for what he did. Committing suicide should never have to be an option. And I am positive that if it had not been Williams, another beloved star would have caught our attention for being taken from us too soon thanks to depression. But that would have been another year, maybe two or three at least. What Robin Williams did for the mental health movement was speed up the process of acceptance and understanding.
From the bottom of my heart, you were and still are my favorite actor. You brought me and so many others joy through your one of a kind and over the top personality. Your movies, standup and television work was incredible. But what you have done for us in spirit means more than anything you ever accomplished in life. You brought the most underestimated yet most common form of sickness to the forefront of discussion like never before. We are entering a new age where mental health will be treated and taken seriously by more people than ever before.
So thank you Robin Williams. May you rest in peace. You deserve it. We love you.