Robin Williams and the Real Meaning of Depression

robin williams

by Amy Slack, Features Editor, @amyizzylou

As Robin Williams’ death proves, suffering from depression is a lot more complicated than simply feeling sad.

A quarter of the population will experience some form of mental health problem in their lifetime, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Yet, despite the fact that so many of us will be affected by mental illness, it can often be seriously misunderstood, or even trivialised in day-to-day conversation.

Take depression, for instance. Regularly, the word is used in everyday speech as a synonym for simply ‘being sad.’ It wouldn’t be unusual to hear someone say they are ‘depressed’ as a dramatic reaction to the cancellation of a favourite TV show.

Of course, that isn’t the same as suffering from depression, when one can feel prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in things they may have previously enjoyed. Depression affects around one in ten people, with symptoms varying greatly between individuals, from the mild to the severe.

More and more people are becoming aware of depression as a serious medical condition. But, while the word continues to be used in the wrong context, genuine depression itself becomes trivialised. As a result, genuine sufferers can end up being told to ‘cheer up’ and ‘get over it,’ as if they simply feel a little unhappy.

Then, on the 12th of August, news broke that actor and comedian Robin Williams had died, aged 63.

Highly respected for his Oscar-winning and -nominated performances in films including Good Will Hunting and Good Morning Vietnam, and loved for children’s films such as Mrs Doubtfire and Jumanji, the news of Williams’ passing shocked the world. In the hours and days following the news generated an outpouring of grief on social media, from those quoting Williams’ best lines to celebrities tweeting tributes. Such digital celebrity memorials have come to be expected nowadays.

However, what was less expected was the level of reaction generated by the news that Williams had committed suicide after ‘battling severe depression’ for some time, according to his publicist. In light of this information, depression no longer seemed trivial; it was fatal.

So, as well as being a place to grieve for Williams, social media became a space to seriously address depression itself. Many people suffering from the illness spoke frankly about their experiences, while others posted suicide prevention helplines and links to mental health awareness websites.

Most significantly, this conversation about mental health seems to have prompted some people to speak up when it mattered most. In the USA, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline more than doubled the day after Williams’ death.

The fact that Williams brought so much joy and humour into people’s lives, while experiencing feelings of joylessness and hopelessness in private, has emphasised that depression isn’t a simple, passing emotion. It is an illness which has the potential to affect anybody; not just the sufferer, but also those who love them. In taking the life of Robin Williams, the millions of people who watched and loved his films can no longer deny the seriousness of depression, and its need for sufferers to be treated appropriately.

It would be naïve to state that the circumstances of Robin Williams’ death will permanently alter how mental illness is perceived by the general public. However, it is clear that the tragedy has emphasised the reality of depression. It isn’t a passing sadness, but a genuine mental health condition with serious, and sometimes even fatal, side effects.

If you are worried about your mental health while at university, Queen’s Guidance Centre offers a free counselling service to students. For more information, email, or call 0808 800 0016 (free from landline and mobile).

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