Please, Don’t Tell Me Robin Williams is at Peace.

In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, I’ve seen a lot of people post things like “I hope he’s found peace,” or “I hope he’s at peace.” And while I understand that those things come from a place of good will, they really, really bother me. Because to me, it reads like “I hope that committing suicide worked out for him.”

I’ve been fairly open on this blog about my own struggles with depression. On occasion, I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts, and one of my ways of combating those thoughts is the knowledge that suicide doesn’t work out. There’s no peace, no joy, nothing positive to found in killing yourself. It’s a tragedy that strands your friends and family in a sea of grief, and denies yourself every good experience and little bit of love you might have had between now and your natural death. It’s a horrible, terrible permanent response to a temporary emotional state. Because even though depression is a chronic condition, the emotional states that it brings with it usually are more temporary, coming in episodes, and even if not, seeking help and treatment is still a vastly preferable response to taking your own life.

Ultimately, depression killed Robin Williams, in a similar sense that cancer killed my mother. It’s a disease. It’s not a failure of will, or a fault of personality, it’s a fucking awful disease, in which a problem with the neurotransmitters in your brain causes deep depths of despair and anxiety that aren’t necessarily related to any outside life event. The nature of clinical depression is that it doesn’t have to have an outside cause; it doesn’t care who you are, any more than cancer or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s does. It can strike anyone, even one of the world’s most successful entertainers. Robin Williams didn’t kill himself because he was a coward, as Shep Smith suggested, or because he was a bad person, or because he lacked a failure of will. He killed himself because he suffered from severe depression. Cancer killed my mother. Depression killed Robin Williams.

The death of Robin Williams is a tragedy, and he is a victim of a disease. I suppose it’s the nature of the way our culture mourns that we attempt to wring anything positive from terrible events, in an effort to make ourselves feel better; usually this comes in the form of platitudes like: He’s in a better place. Or, I hope he’s found peace.

But even typing those words makes me tremble with anger. If you must take something positive from the death of Robin Williams, then be nicer to people, because you never know. Share and publicize the suicide prevention hotline. Educate yourself on the nature of depression, and learn the best ways to listen to friends and family who suffer from the disease. If you think you might be depressed, if you find yourself feeling sad and anxious often for reasons way out of proportion to any rational cause, then please seek help. And maybe through his death, we as a society can become more educated about a widespread, tragic disease that is nevertheless often mocked or dismissed by media and culture.

But Robin Williams’ death– indeed the death of anyone who commits suicide or has their life cut short by a terrible disease– isn’t something to be validated, any more than I would try to validate the cancer that killed my mother.

For the sake of anyone else still alive who struggles with depression and suicide, please don’t suggest or wish that suicide is a valid way of finding peace. It’s not. It can’t be, not if we don’t want to lose more people the way we lost Robin Williams.

12 thoughts on “Please, Don’t Tell Me Robin Williams is at Peace.

  1. You can also help by doing what you can to destigmatize mental health issues. And by making it easier for those who seek help to find it, via destigmatization, politics, advocacy, promotion of science research, and promotion of healthcare access. And by making it as clear as possible to everyone in your life that they are not a burden, since the feeling of being a burden is one of the three required ingredients for someone to attempt. They may not hear the message anyway (I’ve been in that place and it’s difficult to believe that anyone wants me even when they say they do), but they definitely can’t hear it if you’re not saying it.

  2. Thanks for your post, Andrew. I agree with you about the danger of “peace”; it upsets me, too. Despite the campaigns to raise awareness, there are still so many misconceptions and stereotypes about depression (and anxiety). I find it infuriating when people use the blame/weakness model rather than the medical model for thinking about it.

    I’d add to what Luna said by saying that I agree it’s really important for people to make sure that everyone in their life knows they aren’t a burden. But it’s also vitally important for loved ones to seek help for themselves. There are therapists and support groups for the family and friends that are helping a person with depression or anxiety. One can learn techniques both for stress reduction and how to better help their loved one.

    • Thanks, Jacqueline. I wasn’t even aware that those support groups existed (for people whose loved ones suffer from depression), but I’m glad to hear that they do.

  3. Mental illness is one of the first places that funding is cut. It is by far one of THE largest public health issues in America. The hypocrisy is so overwhelming that one cannot get pissed off and frustrated. At least someone with a mind willing to be open enough to see this. Many turn a blind eye or decide to ridicule those who are suffering. People are suffering and fighting battles none of us are even aware of! Yet to back lash and remove ANY type of support whether it be access to mental health care professionals or remove/limit access to substance abuse programs. Yes, let’s not forget substance abuse in this country is at an all time high. Prescription drug abuse is ramp it!! Heroin is an epidemic, alcohol consumption is high and socially acceptable. Arrests and domestic violence continues to steadily climb along with DUI/DWI arrests and deaths. Oh— but no this isn’t related to mental health or depression. FUCK THAT NOISE. It all is related and people are hurting. Clearly this is a touchy subject for me. I’ve dealt with anxiety on a personal level. Had to intervene on behalf of a loved one and comments about suicide. Not to mention the addiction issues throughout my entire family. I’m actively involved with local and national organizations around mental illness. Walks and donations– the whole nine yards. It’s deeply impacted my life and this society as whole. Shit needs to change and people need love and support!

    • Thanks for the comment, Amy. Are there are organizations in particular that you would suggest for people to focus their attention and donations toward?

  4. Andrew, thanks for posting this. You always seemed so happy when we were in high school, I was so jealous because my home life was such a mess. Looking back maybe you as clearly as I should have. Also, this is an interesting perspective on suicide. I was always taught suicide is wrong, but a choice each of us can make for ourselves. We choose as individuals to get up each day and live. Creeped the crap out of my husband when I told him that though…so you’ve given me some food for thought here. Thanks always for writing. Your blog is lovely.

    • Thanks for the comment and the compliment, Dara. Yeah, it’s a tough thing… I am generally pro-euthanasia, for example, for people with terminal disease/pain/conditions who don’t want to linger… but depression isn’t terminal, and the nature of depression is such that suicide isn’t a choice that you make clearly. In essence, you’re being brainwashed by your own brain into thinking you’re worthless, or that the world would be better off without you, or that no one wants you, or a thousand other destructive thoughts that are based in the disease as opposed to rational thought.

      It’s interesting that I always seemed happy in high school… not that I was particularly miserable, but I don’t think I felt particularly happy either. I didn’t become consciously aware of my depression until college, although looking back on that whole period of my life, I feel like I was an emotional basket case. But then, maybe that’s a general symptom of being a teenager.

  5. Very well written and I respect your view on it (and that of others who have commented above). Certainly I don’t condone suggesting suicide as a viable option for getting out of depression or anything else for that matter. That said, and this is from someone who did more than just struggle with suicidal thoughts at one point in my life, I DO hope he is finally at peace, or even better happy, because to wish him anything other than good things after his tragic death is, IMO, a horrible thing. No, I am not saying you actually wish him ill in death; I realize you’re just saying, “Let’s not encourage people who are in this mental state to think of death as a way to peace.” But saying “I hope he’s found peace” is “bad” – even for such a good reason – is not something I can agree with. When I was in that dark place, I never thought of death as a way to find peace. I just felt the world would be better off without someone as useless and worthless as me taking up space in it, and I considered death a way to “check out” and improve the planet (different, at least to me, from “ending my agony” or “finding peace”). Of course, that doesn’t mean other people suffering the same thing feel the same way I did, but it does mean I respectfully disagree with you on this point and I very definitely feel my sincerely hoping he is happier, or at least at peace, after so much internal hell, is a nice and appropriate thing to do. I also wish you great success in any future battles you have with depression or any other disease, and pray I never have another bout as severe as the one in my mid-20’s was.

    • I think everyone has slightly different reasons, but when I’m suicidal, it’s to end the pain (anxiety in my case). I have to *also* feel like I’m a burden or that no one loves me.. If I feel loved, then the pain is more easy to deal with. Before I get suicidal, I spend many hours or days or weeks wishing I were dead, or at least unconscious. The main goal is to stop the pain.

      So depending on who is hearing the message, yeah, the thought of peace can seem pretty nice. (Also note that no one thing ever causes suicide. There may be a single trigger word that tips the balance, but the suicide is a long time coming when it comes. So any survivors should never feel guilty for that “one thing” they said right before it happens. (Of course, chronic abusers might want to feel guilty.))

    • Hi Julianna, thanks for your thoughts. While I understand your rationale and your feelings, all I’d say is be cautious. What pulls one person back from the edge might encourage someone else to inch closer. (And yes, I realize this means I should be cautious, too.) But I don’t think I can really overstate how deeply, viscerally put off I am by any thought that suicide brings peace, or happiness– and I know you’re not saying it does, but for me personally, the suggestion that suicide might bring happiness feels like an attack on one of my strongest motivators to keep living, and part of the defense I have in place against suicidal thoughts, to this very day. And if it makes me recoil, I wonder what other people who may be depressed, or toying with suicidal thoughts themselves, think to themselves when they hear it.

      For a bit of further context, I’m not religious. I don’t believe Robin Williams is happy, or sad, anymore. But I feel like this is one of the great contradictions of religion, and why belief in an afterlife is problematic– if we have eternal paradise waiting for us, why should we care about this tiny, short, suffering-filled life? (Most religions deal with this by making suicide a mortal sin, but obviously no one wishes Robin Williams an eternity in hell– and moreover, if there is a God who consigns depressive suicides to hell… well, it’s hard for me to imagine any way in which an all-powerful deity could be more hideously evil.)

      The ways in which our culture grieves are heavily influenced by religion– “I hope he’s at peace” or “I hope he’s happy” or “he’s in a better place” all suggest belief in an afterlife. Such statements make the living feel better, and help us get over the grief, which is a fine aspiration…. it’s only when talking about things like suicide that the flaws in how we grieve are really brought to light. To make the living feel better, we trivialize death, but in the process of doing so, don’t we make suicide look like a more appealing option?

      I don’t know your own personal beliefs, and it’s not my intention to belittle religion– rather, just to illustrate where my own views are coming from, and I why I am so inflexible on them. My own viewpoint is solidly rooted in an extremely fierce and uncompromising desire to KEEP DEPRESSED PEOPLE ALIVE, to have them seek treatment rather than suicide, and that is partly because I don’t believe there’s an “afterward” to look forward to. A religious person has to reconcile their belief in an afterlife, with a desire to keep people out of that afterlife (if they have that desire). For me, I don’t feel like there’s anything to reconcile. I don’t derive any comfort from thinking about where Robin Williams is now– I have to find other ways to console my grieving. Some of which include getting angry at what I see as contributing failures in our society, like our shitty-ass mental health care systems, or our cultural attitude toward depression, or even our cultural attitude toward death.

  6. My golfing buddies and I are planning a Methow Valley golf trip and I happened upon your site looking for pix to plan our little trip. I don’t understand depression at all. Not a lick. Sure I have had problems but my time then becomes consumed by figuring a way out of which ever mess I got myself in this time. It occurred to me if Robin Williams had been a golfer he may not have done what he did. There is always another great shot out there. There is always a course that you want another try at. I don’t believe that afterlife stuff either. Where ever Rooster’s (that’s my dog) spirit will go is where I think my spirit will go. You have more compassion than I have for everything. Perhaps someone close to you…keep up the good work of keeping depressed people alive and thanx for the pictures. And if you try your hand at golf don’t expect to be a genius at it w/o time on the course. Best case goal is probably lowering your handicap by 2 or 3 strokes every year.

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