Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams and mental illness

Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society
Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society via

Robin Williams’s suicide has had an outstanding and powerful effect on many people, whether they knew and worked with him or just saw his movies. With iconic roles in movies like Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire and Patch Adams,  almost everyone has laughed along with this funny man, but few ever thought of his long-time battle with addiction and depression.

For me, Dead Poets Society is where Williams touched my life the most. That movie about an impassioned English teacher at a boys’ prep school shaped what I read, how I thought about literature and poetry and introduced me to the phrase “Carpe Diem”in the most affecting and sincere way I can imagine. Dead Poets Society also did something else, though. It was my first real introduction to the idea of suicide. That first and quite honest view of suicide showed me that anyone could be at risk and that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t save a person. It was a heartbreaking experience, but it helped to prepare me for the world I would soon enter: a world where mental illness, depression and suicide would become a reality for many people I dearly love.

I’ve seen many people try desperately to focus on the good times, remembering Williams as a funny and good-hearted man. Others celebrate his freedom from his demons. A minority even criticize his choice to commit suicide. While I understand the intentions of all of these reactions, I think that they all miss the mark. I’m not going to try to tell anyone how to grieve, because that is unproductive and hurtful. But as a part of our collective sadness, I think we need to consider the context.

Anyone who has experienced or witnessed a battle with mental illness understands that it is, in fact, a fight. There are a lot of factors, emotional and physical, that accompany depression, for example. People suffering from depression can’t just  suck it up and “be happy” or “fix themselves.” Though treatments are available, there are challenges in the healthcare system. Aside from that, treatments are challenging and time consuming, in addition to being limited in terms of accessibility. There is no one fix and getting it figured out can take a lifetime. Those with depression are not weak, cowardly or lacking in faith. They have an invisible illness. It is real.

The perception of these sorts of illnesses is flawed, as evidenced, in part, by some of the responses to Williams’s death. Yes, mental illness can affect anyone. Yes, it is real. No, it is not a character flaw. Yes, it can lead someone to make the only choice that seems possible: ending one’s life. People need to know that suicide isn’t the only choice, and the best way to work towards that is to change the culture and perception of mental illness. Changing the perception is only a first step, but it’s the first step. We have to start talking about this. No one can beat depression alone. People need other people, as the organization TWLOHA says (To Write Love On Her arms is an organization dedicated to offering hope and finding help and their staff say a lot of cool stuff so you should check them out).

So let’s not be silent. Let’s remember Robin Williams as a kind, loving and talented man who also was fighting a battle. Let’s remember how long and hard he fought before giving up. Let’s genuinely mourn his choice and support his family as they struggle with its repercussions. Let’s start talking about our battles. Some people’s battles are larger than others’.  It doesn’t matter. Reach out to people and be open to them reaching out to you. It’s not our jobs to decide whose problems are big enough to matter. Everyone’s battle is important and real. Let those battles be important and real to us. You won’t be able to save everyone. You won’t be able to fix anyone. But you can love people and let them love you. And you can reach out when you need it.

In the U.S. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available:

One thought on “Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams and mental illness

  1. Well thought out article. I had similar reflections on Robin Williams suicide. I also wondered if this movie affected his outlook on life.

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