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Don’t make assumptions about comedy and depression after the death of Robin Williams

News of Robin Williams’s suicide will have taken many of us by surprise. We always feel a mix of emotions when we hear someone famous, successful, creative and much loved has been suffering unbearable…

It might seem odd that successful, creative and funny people like Robin Williams, can be fundamentally unhappy. Robert Brye/Handout

News of Robin Williams’s suicide will have taken many of us by surprise. We always feel a mix of emotions when we hear someone famous, successful, creative and much loved has been suffering unbearable distress. But the fact remains that most of us are not equipped to see the suffering of people beyond their public mask.

Although nowadays we’re familiar with the idea that mental health problems can affect anyone, it nevertheless strikes us as particularly, sad, poignant and inexplicable when we hear of the death of someone who seems to have achieved what many of us aspire towards.

The value of each of us

We all want a happy, healthy life and family or friends to share it with, and to enjoy the good things life has to offer. Many of us also want to be successful; to win the prizes of our chosen profession, just as Williams did.

Indeed, many of us also believe we would enjoy being rich, but even that isn’t necessarily true. Many of us think we would be happy if we were creative, were able to make people laugh or weep at the truths of our existence, to know that we were loved by millions.

It seems very odd to us, from this perspective, when we learn that rich, successful, creative, funny people can be unhappy. But the fact remains that mental health problems can affect us all.

All deaths are tragedies; when a well-known and well-loved person dies, there is an understandable (and touching) outpouring of messages commenting on just how loved, how beautiful and how talented that person was. But this is true for us all.

Each daughter, each son, everyone who feels so desperate that they are tempted to end their lives is beautiful, talented, loved and loving.

For any number of reasons, material or even artistic success may not lead to happiness. Perhaps because for many people such material success does not address the things that really matter to them. Or perhaps because many people have other problems in their lives.

If a person is struggling to recover from substance abuse or drug addiction, for instance, as Williams was, material success can seem pointless at best, and even unhelpful.

Perhaps with material success (especially, perhaps, in show business) comes a superficiality and artificiality in those surrounding you that can make it difficult to find true meaning and purpose in life. And it may even make more genuine relationships difficult to maintain.

It is only really possible to understand each person’s life, the reasons behind their happiness or unhappiness, and the reasons behind their actions, by understanding how they see the world. Artists and comedians can help us understand this.

Creative genius – such as that shown by Williams – can reveal sensitive and appropriately ambiguous aspects of mental health problems and the wonderful but tragic nature of a life fully lived (think of his films The Fisher King or Dead Poets Society).

Not about victims

Artists can help us see beyond the notion of someone being a “victim of mental illness” and instead, lead us to think about what it means to see life through someone else’s eyes.

Many psychologists and psychiatrists have speculated on a link between mental health problems and creativity. The relationship appears to be a complex one, and probably more closely related to our stereotypes than to reality.

Just as we like to think material success makes people happy (when this is not always true), a stereotype of “madness” is the crazy but creative iconoclast, cheerfully making bizarre but imaginative connections.

There is some truth to this; comedians seem to have somewhat unconventional thought processes (but then we probably could have guessed that). And people prone to so-called “hypomanic” episodes of energy and excitement seem more likely to be in the creative industries.

But the relationship isn’t strong. For all the reasons described above, mental health problems can affect us all, so we are all liable to experience both elation and depression. Perhaps the more strongly we engage with being alive, the more strongly we feel all emotions.

So perhaps people in creative industries can make imaginative leaps that the rest of us are incapable of, but this may well bring some threats as well as benefits. After all, if you can think of a hundred uses of a rubber chicken, you can probably also think of a hundred reasons why you’re not as clever as you think you are.

And perhaps comedians use humour to manage their relationships with others – even though that may seem somewhat unsurprising, given their profession.

But most importantly, we should be very careful about two assumptions.

First, we can all experience mental health problems. It’s a mistake to assume that because a person appears to have material success, they are content – there can be a million reasons for a person’s unhappiness.

And it’s a mistake to assume that, for some people, mental health problems add wackiness and eccentricity but are otherwise benign; when a person is suffering, that suffering is real.

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide in Australia can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 22 46 36. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90 or on email at jo@samaritans.org