While many have speculated that Robin Williams struggled with bipolar disorder, the Oscar-winning actor and comedian who lost his life to suicide on Monday never publicly stated as much. In fact, he outright refuted it in a characteristically quick-witted interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross in 2006. In response to being “branded” a manic-depressive after volunteering to be on the cover of an issue ofNewsweek about medication, Mr. Williams said, “‘Um, that’s clinical. I’m not that.’ Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.”
Still, many in the media continued to speculate about his mental health after that interview, not out of genuine concern for his wellbeing, but out of lust for a scoop. Others in the mental health community weren’t much nobler, as they tried to adopt him as an unwilling patron saint in an effort to make them feel better about their own diagnoses.
As someone living with a mental illness who carefully chose when, where and how to reveal that information publicly, this infuriates me. Mr. Williams never had that option. Ignoring the comic’s claims to the contrary, others revealed his presumed mental health status for him, despite his lack of admission, let alone consent. The mental health advocates who pressured him to speak out about whatever illness they suspected he had weren’t interested in being a source of support for him. Rather, they wanted him to be a source of support for them, not realizing that his work — and not his celebrity — had already done more to support their cause than any star-studded fundraiser.
Sure there’s a degree of comfort that comes with knowing that smart and successful people share certain labels with you, but such labels offer little insight into the human condition, and rarely provide more than momentary consolation. Creative expression, on the other hand, does more than temporarily console or pacify; it elevates. It allows us to form meaningful connections, to transcend divisions and sometimes even to heal.
Art, done well, is a powerful form of activism, and Robin Williams did his art — his comedy, his writing, his acting — incredibly well. He leaves behind brilliant film and stand-up performances that will continue to speak for themselves, if we let them.
We could all learn worlds more about depression and suicide, for example, by watching his performance in the 1998 film What Dreams May Come than by continuing to gossip about his untimely death and thereby giving reporters further incentive to disturb and disrespect his family, not to mention his memory.
Instead of turning to entertainment journalists analyzing a publicist’s statement about the actor “battling severe depression” to confirm some sick curiosity, we ought to look where Mr. Williams wanted us to look, where he left so many astounding gifts and treasures, where he lived and where he still lives — in his art.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.