Commentary: Robin Williams' end spotlights depression

I don't think I've seen the kind of shock and national mourning — and outpouring of love — for an entertainment figure that's been generated by the suicide of Robin Williams since Michael Jackson's death in 2009.

This shouldn't be that big a surprise. The man was beloved in a multigenerational, multicultural, deeply adoring way. Kids loved him as the Genie from "Aladdin" as well as for the fact Williams never really outgrew childhood himself. And of course, he was always Mork from Ork. The comedy community revered him as an original. Even film critics respected him for having surprisingly strong dramatic chops in a series of features.

Yet this love affair that Williams had with America (and indeed the world) cut far deeper than his iconic talent. It turns out we were all fiercely protective of the man for the fragility and vulnerability we all saw just below the surface.

If you wanted to get mercilessly attacked en masse this past week, all you had to do was post something on Facebook or Twitter that insinuated Williams took the coward's way out or checked out on his family in opting to hang himself. He was defended as a mama bear does her cubs. This wasn't just another celebrity claimed by his "demons." This one was truly personal.

You know how it's OK for you to say something disparaging about your family members, but God save anyone else who does? That's sort of what we've seen this week with Williams. If you thought badly of him for what he did, if you felt somehow abandoned and wanted to lash out, you kept it to yourself.

Why was Philip Seymour Hoffman largely seen as a weak-willed failure for dying of a heroin overdose, but Williams a heartbreaking victim of circumstance for his more purposeful final act? It wasn't just because Robin was such a gentle soul who made us laugh so gloriously.

It was also because we understood.

Williams was gripped by a disease that cripples more millions than any drug ever created: Depression. As we learned later, he was also struck by the early stages of Parkinson's disease. And his CBS comedy, "The Crazy Ones," was recently canceled after a season.

He'd also endured open-heart surgery just five years ago. And he was reportedly white-knuckling it while keeping a delicate hold on his sobriety. That's an awful lot to have to keep together no matter how much money you've got.

Yes, the guy was famous, wildly successful, universally worshipped and bolstered by what was said to be a great marriage to a wonderful woman. He also had children who apparently loved him unconditionally.

But depression trumps every bit of it. The black despair that grows and metastasizes inside your very DNA has a way of rendering the sufferer amnesiac when it comes to reasons to feel grateful. The idea that fame, fortune and idolatry should be the magic elixir guaranteeing peace of mind and contentment descends into a sea of gloom.

I've seen up-close what depression can do to someone. I've also experienced it personally, though thankfully only for fleeting periods and never to the point of feeling suicidal. But I understand just how quickly the paralyzing misery can take you there. Suicidal people aren't thinking about grieving friends and family; they just want the unbearable pain to stop.

So depression now finally has its poster boy. So does suicide. And if Williams taking his own life can bring greater understanding to a mental condition, and an act, so mired in stigma and shame, it really should take some of the sting out of the sorrow people are feeling. It will have not been completely in vain.

I'm not one of those people who think, "He's in a better place now." The truth is I have no idea today where Williams is, or if he is, or what he is.

What I do know is that none of us should allow the man's final act to tarnish his legacy. Instead, maybe we simply ought to trust that he helped to make the world a better place with the way he lived — and a more empathetic place with the way he died.

RAY RICHMOND writes a regular column for Times Community News in Los Angeles County. He can be reached via email at and Twitter at @MeGoodWriter.

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