Thursday, 14 August 2014

Missing the point?

I've read many wonderful tributes to Robin Williams this week - a true acting legend and comic genius. (There is a short biography here.) Films such as "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Will Hunting" had a profound impact on my adolescent world view, and his role as the Genie in Aladdin was one of a kind. A hugely talented man - yes, but the international outpouring of grief appears to be ignoring the elephant in the room.

Image courtesy of Tom Curtis /
Which is particularly pertinent since August 12th (this week) was World Elephant Day!

Mourning this loss of greatness is vital, Williams gave more to the Hollywood film industry and those who loved him than most actors of his time. It is said that his severe depression led him to commit suicide, and I am pleased to see a drive on social media to raise awareness of depression as the very real illness it is, and to highlight the appalling impact it has on the lives of sufferers and their families.

There are many people who still believe that you can "think yourself" out of depression. That it's a life choice. Those people would most likely have supported medieval practices of blood-letting to cure all ills and rebalance the body's "humours" or the belief that women were impure after childbirth and needed to be shut away until they could be "churched". Such views of metal illness are as outdated as this and there is simply no excuse for them to persist.

Having experienced first hand the prejudice surrounding mental illness I know how excruciatingly painful the condemnation of others' ignorance can be. A diabetic is unwell if blood sugar levels vary due to issues with insulin production - a widely understood and accepted problem. The individual with depression is ill because the mood levels vary due to inadequate levels of neurotransmitters called seratonin and dopamine in the brain. But the common lack of knowledge and understanding of brain function means it is still viewed as an area of the body that doesn't somehow conform to the rules the rest subscribes to.  Yet it's a straightforward issue of biochemistry. Simple as that.

But such understanding is decades behind the times and still revelationary to far too many. Antidepressants are not a lifestyle drug, a label of weakness or a confession in themselves. They are a chemical compound to restore an imbalance and should be viewed no differently that the diabetic injecting themselves with insulin.

Depression's External Factors
So I wholeheartedly support this week's initiative to spread the word that Depression is real, depression is not self inflicted and rarely self-curable. There are however, external factors that can precipitate or perpetuate Depression and these have barely been touched on. The bigger message here is the severe depression addiction brings, even when you think you are over it. If one thing comes from these celebrity deaths I hope it is a greater awareness by the younger generation of the dangers of drink and drugs.

Williams was hugely talented, like so many of the Hollywood set fell prey to both drink and drugs. Alcohol is a depressant and frequently causes depression in those who drink too much. Drugs like Cocaine then lift the mood and thus addicts fall into a combined cycle of drink and drugs all too often. It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation, since those suffering depression can also seek to self medicate and become addicts as a result... this is described well here. Smokers are more than twice as likely to be depressed as non smokers but do they smoke because they are depressed?

There are many factors involved in addiction, but when alcoholism is involved it would seem it is more likely that addiction preceded the depression, and according to research addiction would seem to cause depression in men more often than the other way around.

You might ask - "does it matter which came first?" but I would argue it does, as it affects treatment. And until we start talking about depression we remain light years from understanding it. 

But back to Williams and that Elephant.

The most likely explanation for William's suicide from what I have so far read is of severe depression triggered by chronic addiction. A story becoming far too familiar for far too many. It's a modern problem in a world where too many have too much, too soon where families are dispersed and communities are breaking down. I've written about all these things, many times before. But I don't know the answers, or if the process is even stoppable - let alone reversible.

So let's raise awareness of Depression and Mental Illness. Let's break down the barriers of prejudice, try and understand the role of addiction in depressive illness.

But let's not forget that elephant, before it's too late. 

There is something very wrong in our society, we are all getting swept along in a tidal wave of "progress" and individuals are drowning along the way. I want my children to succeed in life - but more than anything I want them to be happy. And I think that requires more than money, more than possessions and more than success. We need to be part of something bigger.

And that is the real issue here. Be extraordinary, be successful, make a difference - and do it together.


  1. Great post and you are right, there needs to be more focus on mental illness x

  2. Depression isn't always down to biological factors. So much more understanding is needed.

  3. I have depression , very good post .x

  4. I eagerly await the day our medical understanding of the brain makes the kind of ignorance we currently witness surrounding suicide wholly inexcusable, not just a matter of opinion. I'm 100% with you on this, writing in a similar vein over at, would love your input.

  5. I've seen a discussion about whether it was depression or Bipolar, but I'll have to admit I'm still not clear on the differences. Am off to research more. But I agree, the more we talk about all of this, the less ignorant the majority will be - like my reasons for blogging about autism xx

  6. There is so much that needs more information, shouting about. It's a shame that we have had to lose a great actor for people to recognise that more help is needed though.

  7. What must be remembered about celebrity deaths is that most things we read about their lives is utter tosh. Quotes from 'friends' and 'sources' detailing their problems are usually just made up. On the subject of addiction and depression the original problem is rarely looked into. Boxes ticked, pills prescribed and the patient goes on their way. I know people on repeat prescriptions and they are just renewed month after month.

  8. I can't believe he's gone, he came across as such a nice guy and he obviously had immense talent. I hope his death really gives mental health issues and depression the focus and light it needs.

  9. Great post! I have when ppl don't try to understand that depressions is serious and can lead to many bad things :(

  10. I am really torn about his death. I have mental health problems myself and yes I believe that as a community we should do MORE to help people. I do not understand the modern phenomenon of grieving for someone we do not know. I can empathise with his family and yes it is sad, but it is their loss not mine

  11. I think the good thing about all the media hubbub is that it raises the awareness about mental health issues. Robin Williams was a terrific actor and several of his films have been my favorites and have had a profound effect on me. Like you said, it's good to remember that success, as money and popularity, does not equal success in life.

  12. I have spoken to a lot of people with mental health problems and time and time again I am told how hard it is to get others to understand. When a person has a physical illness it's obvious, but mental illness is an 'unseen' condition and I think some may be scared by it. I am gutted that Robin Williams has died, but I hope his death will at least help to shine a light on these issues and help others out of the darkness.

  13. I feel desperately sad for Robin William's family and do wonder if his diagnosis with Parkinson's may have been the final straw for him

  14. Beautifully written. Mental health is slowly crawling out of the dark ages but there's a long way to go and you're absolutely right that more needs to be done to spread awareness. Carpe diem indeed!

  15. It's so sad to see someone who made the entire world laugh struggle with the demons of depression and alcoholism, and then not be able to continue with living.

  16. Another brilliantly articulated post Kate. Things are changing, but there still seems to a lot of stigma attached to mental heath issues. Are you aware of Time To Change? They're doing fabulous work...


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