Public reactions to Robin Williams’s death are revealing

8s5uxSSZ9lZbP2qqoITMErGxvQcRobin Williams as Patch Adams (1998)

I was saddened by the recent news of Robin Williams’ suicide, though perhaps not surprised, since I had read about his battles with drugs, which suggested he had deeper issues. I was also not surprised, but most definitely saddened by, much of the the mass media’s portrayal of this event.

To cite just a few, The Metro presented lurid descriptions of the specific manner in which he did it. The Daily Mail focused on Williams’ looming divorce battles, and bankruptcy, as potential causes of his suicide.

On the other hand, Radio 4 has dealt admirably with the topic and opened the discussion on mental health in a measured and intelligent way. A few months ago, I adored their fascinating and enlightening crash course on the history of mental health in society, called ‘In Search of Ourselves’, which was presented by Martin Sixsmith. I hope one day it is available to listen to again.

Despite lots of mature and insightful articles on the actor’s death, much hostility from the public is still present. Williams’s daughter, Zelda, was driven from Twitter by trolls, after people tweeted her Photoshopped images of her father hanging. The Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist American christian group, made signs depicting Williams in hell and are considering whether to picket his funeral. A TalkSport presenter has been reprimanded for saying that he was glad it wasn’t ‘Robbie Williams’ who had committed suicide, but still damned the news as a selfish and ‘diabolical’ act.

There have been lots of public figures – especially writers – with severe mental health disorders: Virginia Woolf experienced multiple depressive and delusional episodes, and eventually committed suicide. Stephen Fry has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and J.K. Rowling famously suffers from depression.

This has caused many people in the media to link depression with creativity, which I think is unwise. To twin depression with genius is to romanticise it – like the melancholic poet, Byron, and capture it on canvas in oil paint. It is more likely that some people with genius have depression, and vice versa. Comedians, perhaps, are more prone to depression because many admit to being victims of bullying at school, and have partly turned to comedy as a way to deal with negative feelings.

I have been touched by the national sorrow, but struck by the anger. It shows how many (and, often, influential) people still can’t see beyond the surface, and are dogged by a staggering and childlike insistence that the public persona is all there is. And, through narratives that become embedded in cultural history, the real person is lost.

There is still very little public awareness of what mental health is – despite the obvious fact that everyone has mental health problems, whether they admit it or not. In America, there seems to be more awareness of mental health issues, but it has been medicalised; hence, the stereotype of the depressed housewife on Prozac. Sometimes, depression is seen as an epidemic of modern life, but also, paradoxically, as the fault of the individual.

Depression does not strike in a day. It is likely a series of traumas, hurts and suppressions – compounded by chemical imbalances. This can be further complicated by, and sometimes combined with, delusional conditions like schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.

The nuances are many, and mass media has a tendency to dumb down complex topics for purposes of bitesize consumption. But, as most mature adults know, mental wellbeing is more than the mind, more than emotion, and more than the body. It is being in step with life, whatever that may mean for the individual.

A few years ago, when a friend suffered a mental episode in which they lost touch with reality, I was shocked, confused, and scared. I thought the episode would last forever, and lost my faith in the power of the mind. As I lacked the capacity to deal with the experience, life resumed. I later became plagued with anxiety, which grew steadily worse until my mind temporarily stopped functioning. Panic attacks ensued, and darkness.

At the time, I felt guilty that my former confident self seemed to have been a sham and deserted me when I need it most. I felt that ‘mental illness’ was catching, and an epidemic had spread. No one had any answers for me.

Then I later found out how common these problems are – but people hardly ever talk about them! And, when they are mentioned, they are cloaked in euphemism, and sterilised for ‘decent’ consumption.

We want to deny the very fact of being human – that life is hard, we suffer, and sometimes self-destruct. The outpouring of sympathy from many members of the internet community and also some parts of the mass media show how many, thankfully, are able to grasp nuance, can peer behind the laughing face and see what was obviously a troubled man. A man who was probably both good and bad – just like the rest of us.

But many could only see an ungrateful superstar, too stupid to believe his own luck – as if money and fame are all the matters, and no other questions beg to be answered. That attitude betrays the true affliction of modern life.




Time to Change is an initiative (funded by the Department of Health) which encourages people to talk about their mental health issues – especially over a cup of tea. If enough people join in – ones who normally keep to themselves, while letting the cacophony of idiots take centre-stage – we could be having a very different conversation.


This article is a very interesting alternative take on sympathy for William’s suicide.


Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Virginia Woolf - by Gisele Freund.

National Portrait Gallery, 10 July – 26 October 2014

Virginia Woolf is one of my heroes, whom I discovered on an English Literature degree introductory module, during which I read To the Lighthouse, but wasn’t particularly impressed with at the time. It wasn’t until I discovered her essays, and learned about the context of the times in which she lived, that I was hooked. Like pieces of a puzzle rendering a vague image gradually clear, the more a level of consciousness I had not been able to articulate found expression.

I took an exam and picked my question based on her quote about the experience life being comparable to a luminous halo: consciousness flickering.

I read Mrs Dalloway for my second year modernism module and A Room of One’s Own for one called ‘Images of women’. Her dazzling narratives represented so well the vagaries of consciousness, and her non-linear representations of time expressed what I had only bluntly grasped. Her calm and reasonable – but nevertheless impassioned – essays in defense of, and for the advancement of the rights of women, thrilled my soul.

I finally understood why I had always suspected it would have been much better to have been born a man. It was because of Virginia Woolf – and the lecturer who introduced her to me – that my intellectual awakening occurred.

Virginia Woolf came into my life as part of a wider context of higher education, but she has never left it. She is an inspirational light which continues to shine through the decades.

I included Mrs Dalloway in my undergraduate dissertation, which was about representations of the tea table in modernist literature, and how it symbolises the confinement of women but also may provide a route to their liberation. In my Master’s thesis, I wrote about all of her fiction and their explorations of women’s issues through tea. It was awarded a 2:1, and I can now proudly say that I have read all of her novels.

So, though I already know a lot about her, the exhibition was fascinating because it provided a complex and insightful window into her personal relationships, the places she lived, and her art. Her work suffuses London, where she spent much of her life, where I now live, and where the exhibition took place. Her work is still relevant and I have yet to discover a modern feminist writer that matches her; though I live in hope. It provided a valuable new lens through which to view a most mysterious woman and her legacy.

If you would like to see the exhibition, it runs until 26 October.