Robin Williams’ Silent Killer: Depression
Last week actor Robin Williams took his own life after suffering from depression for many years. What should we understand about this common problem?
Many are still reeling in shock from the news that Robin Williams, 63, committed suicide after suffering from depression for several years. He was one of more than 20 million people who suffer from depression in the United States. In fact, depression is the leading form of mental illness in the U.S. and around the world.
What is depression?
Depression is a state of unhappiness or sadness. We all feel depressed at times—that’s normal. This is called situational depression. Many people in the Bible experienced this kind of depression based on circumstances in which they found themselves, including:
- The prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:4).
- King David (Psalm 6:6-7).
- Job (Job 3:1-3).
- The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Situational depression is temporary, usually based on the circumstances we find ourselves in; and we can control it by changing the choices we make, changing our environment or just letting time work bad circumstances out. The Bible gives guidance on actions we can take to pull out of situational depression:
- Pray to God for His comfort and help (2 Corinthians 7:6; Philippians 4:6; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:7).
- Focus our minds on positive thoughts—especially spiritual thoughts rooted on the positive promises of God found in the Bible (Deuteronomy 31:8; Psalm 9:9; Proverbs 12:25; Philippians 4:8).
- Seek positive encouragement and social support from others (Romans 15:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11; Hebrews 10:24).
For more guidance on working through situational depression, read “Overcoming Dangerous Emotions.”
When we think of Robin Williams, we almost all remember him for his jovial comedy, impersonations and laughter. He was able to hide his inner struggles through an outer veneer of silliness and humor.Clinical depression
However, there is another type of depression that is far more serious, known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by health-care professionals, depression becomes a disorder when it impacts several aspects of daily living. Specifically, the presence of a depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, for no less than a two-week period, plus any four of the following symptoms will yield a diagnosis of major depressive disorder:
- A loss of interest in pleasurable activities.
- Significant weight loss or gain without intent, or marked increase or decrease in appetite.
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping.
- Increased agitation or retardation (as noticed by others).
- Extreme fatigue and/or loss of energy virtually every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and excessive or inappropriate guilt (often not based on reality or caused by any specific circumstance).
- Diminished ability to think, concentrate or make decisions.
- Recurring thoughts of death, dying, committing suicide, with or without a plan to do so (DSM-IV, p. 327).
Apparently, Robin Williams suffered from this form of depression. He did not tend to speak much about his depression over the years (he was more open about his struggles with substance abuse), but he did allude to it in an interview on the NPR radio program Fresh Air in 2006: “Do I get sad? Oh, yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh, yeah.”
Yet when we think of Robin Williams, we almost all remember him for his jovial comedy, impersonations and laughter. He was able to hide his inner struggles through an outer veneer of silliness and humor.
Author and freelance writer Christy Heitger-Ewing has written several articles on this subject after her mother’s suicide 16 months ago. She writes: “The truth of the matter is that people who battle clinical depression may very well be funny, kind, cheerful, and sweet; they are also woefully despondent” (“Why We Should Talk About Depression and Suicide When It’s Not Trending,” Aug. 13, 2014).
People who suffer from this terrible mental illness often liken it to falling into a dark hole, so deep that they feel there is no hope of ever climbing out. Whereas most of us who have blue days know that things will get better over time, people with a depressive disorder often do not have that same hope. The mental illness makes them almost incapable of realizing that life can get better and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
It is helpful to hear depression described by one who actually suffers from it. An individual who suffers from clinical depression wrote: “You have zero self-esteem. All day is the constant drip-drip-dripping of ‘I’m-no-good,’ like background noise to everyday life. Once those words had meaning but repetition has blunted them. You believe that nobody really wants you around so what’s the point in being alive? You think people would be better off without you. Life feels like a chore and [you’re] tired ... and slow ... and just want out.”
It is important for those dealing with someone with clinical depression to have understanding of these feelings.
Dealing with clinical depression
What should you do if you or someone you know seems to fit the diagnosis of major depressive disorder (or clinical depression)?
We would still recommend that people begin a spiritual treatment program. Regularly use the scriptural keys given earlier in this blog post.
But clinical depression can also require professional therapy—which can be very helpful. Counseling is extremely important to anyone suffering from this problem. However, almost 80 percent of sufferers don’t seek treatment. One reason for this is the stigma that surrounds mental illness. People who suffer from these problems don’t want to be judged and often feel guilt and shame.
But the worst-case scenarios like Robin Williams’ suicide should motivate sufferers to get help immediately. There are treatments for these issues that can be combined with the powerful help that comes only through God and His Word.
When left untreated, depression can become deadly, as in the case of Robin Williams. Please seek professional help now, if you or someone you love struggles with this issue.
For more information on this serious problem, read our blog post “Overcoming Depression.” And read Debbie Pierce's follow-up blog post: “Living Under the Dark Cloud: One Man’s Struggle With Depression.”