health

Laughing until you cry: Thoughts on Robin Williams and mental health

Robin Williams. (Credit: Peggy Sirota for Parade.)

Robin Williams. (Credit: Peggy Sirota for Parade.)

Mrs. Doubtfire is one of those films my brother and I absolutely loved as kids and would always stop to watch whenever we found it while channel surfing. What’s not to love? Robin Williams’ performance is outlandish but gentle in all the right ways.

It’s one of those film that reminds you of childhood, a film that makes you feel at home. And after news broke of Williams’ death on Monday afternoon, I know many others also feel the same way.

The 63-year-old actor and comedian was discovered dead Monday in his home and it was revealed he had likely committed suicide. Police said Williams was being treated for depression at the time, which only further cements the truth that depression and mental illness does not discriminate and is often hidden behind happy faces and laughter.

Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

The challenge with depression and mental health is that despite much of the information and awareness out there, it’s something really difficult to comprehend unless you’ve experienced it yourself or have seen it play out in a loved one. This was my experience a couple years ago when a family member was diagnosed with encephalitis.

Even when you’re present and watching first-hand as a family member goes through the stages of a mental health problem – being diagnosed, accepting it, learning to live with it – it’s hard to reconcile the person you know with the spectre that hangs over them.

It’s important to realize that the mind is just as fragile as any other part of the human system. You often hear people talk about how a broken mind, although invisible to the human eye, is just as serious as a broken bone. This is something I acknowledge and have repeated to myself often but even then, I find myself asking how something so debilitating could affect someone I love so much.

The reality is that mental health shouldn’t be something we only talk about when we’re struck with a lightning bolt of an event, such as Williams’ death. Mental wellness is something we should all be mindful of, in ourselves and in those around us. Just as how we’re taught from a young age to exercise and eat well, we should also be aware of how to maintain our own mental health and fitness.

I’m often skeptical of the echo chamber that is the Internet but if there’s anything worth sharing and repeating a thousand times over, it’s the discussion around mental health and wellness. For more information on mental health, you can check out some of the links I’ve included below.

Canadian Mental Health Association (B.C.)
http://cmha.bc.ca

B.C. Mental Health & Substance Use Services
http://www.bcmhsus.ca

B.C. Ministry of Health Toll-Free Information Lines
http://www.health.gov.bc.ca/mhd/infoline.html

Mental Health America
http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net

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A lesson in appreciating life

On Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT and opened fire on innocent teachers and children.

Like everyone else, I watched with horror as details about the shooting began surfacing. I felt like I was going to throw up just trying to imagine what these families’ lives would be like. Then offshoot conversations began stemming from the main story.

Spiralling conversations

Journalism ethics were called into question as some media outlets began interviewing surviving children on air. Commentators called on politicians to re-examine the American “right to bear arms” and on President Barack Obama to take action. Health advocates criticized the ease of access with which an individual can purchase a firearm but not receive mental health care.

There were a lot of thoughts and emotions flying around online, in newspapers, and on television – but all I could think of was something I had seen tweeted by Chris Jones, a writer for Esquire and a columnist for ESPN.

Chris Jones, writer for Esquire and columnist for ESPN tweeted this on Friday, following the shooting in Newtown, CT.

Chris Jones, writer for Esquire and columnist for ESPN tweeted this on Friday, following the shooting in Newtown, CT.

I couldn’t figure out why this stuck with me. As a journalist, you’d think I’d be more concerned with finding out confirmed details and what the story really was.

But the story isn’t about what happened – the story is about what won’t happen.

From the perspective of children

I had considered social work and teaching before I pursued journalism full-time. When you’re around children, your perspective on everything changes. You stop looking at the world from your own eyes and you begin to understand how it looks from the perspective of someone who still believes in, well… everything.

Children have a curious way of looking at the world, at embracing the magic that still surrounds us everyday. Some people don’t give kids enough credit – they’re much wiser than their years would have you believe, and more creative than you might think possible. To kids, the entire world truly is a playground and everything is still a possibility.

Yesterday’s story isn’t about what happened in Newtown. The story is about what won’t happen.

Non-existent futures

The 20 children who had their lives traumatically cut short won’t even finish elementary school. They won’t conduct any awkward fundraisers where their parents do majority of the fundraising. No field trips, no bake sales.

No mini-graduation as they make the transition to high school. No AP Calculus, no detention after school, no prom and no graduation gown. No university applications, no scholarships, no first apartment in residence.

No first love, no meeting the parents. They won’t get down on one knee to ask their high-school sweetheart to marry them. They won’t say yes ecstatically. They won’t spend forever trying to figure out the seating plans at their wedding.

They won’t feel the knot in their stomach on the first day of a new job – their first real job after graduating from university. No promotion, no first big assignment at work. No performance reviews at work.

These kids won’t even make it to Christmas this year. Their parents are now going home to clear out their Christmas-present hiding spot. The children whose names are written on the gift tags are no longer around.

Sympathy

It pains my heart to think of everything that is happening to these families right now – but even more so to think of all the things that won’t be happening to them. It is an unimaginable pain and grief these parents will feel for a long time, if not forever, knowing they won’t see their child graduate, work, get married, become parents themselves.

I’m not yet a parent but as a human being, I still hurt. My heart aches when I think about all the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to see in my young life, things that these 20 kids will never understand. Then when I think of all the times I’ve complained about anything, any major challenge I’ve come across – fuck, even the small challenges I’ve come across – that pain turns to guilt.

Learning to live with appreciation

While gun laws and health care access might take some time to change, there are a few things we can do now to make sure these 20 children aren’t forgotten. We can’t bring them back but at the very least, we desperately need to learn from this horrific incident and treat it as a wake-up call.

Let this be a lesson in being better people, in taking better care of each other. Make sure we hug our parents a little tighter every time we do get to see them. Walk a little slower and breathe a little deeper. Drive more carefully along the scenic route. Pay more attention to the ones we love. Let this be the last time you ever feel ungrateful for anything. Stop complaining about the petty shit and start living our lives with appreciation.

Above all, keep playing, keep believing, keep loving, and keep trusting – the way that kids do.

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NEWTOWN SHOOTING | THE VICTIMS

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6
Rachel Davino, 29; Teacher
Dawn Hochsprung, 47; School principal
Nancy Lanza, 52; Mother of gunman
Anne Marie Murphy, 52; Teacher
Lauren Rousseau, 30; Teacher
Mary Sherlach, 56; School psychologist
Victoria Soto, 27; Teacher

(Victims’ names sourced from The New York Times, www.nytimes.com.)

Featured photo courtesy of Getty Commons.