All of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on this day last year – when the news broke of Robin Williams’ tragic death.
And perhaps nobody felt it harder than our generation. After all, Williams was known as the funniest guy we “knew” since the days of sleepovers with our childhood best friends. Who could ever forget the infamous cooking scene in Mrs. Doubtfire, wishing you could join the Tarzan-like man-child in your very own Jumanji game, or taking Williams’ park bench love advice to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting to heart in your own young love life?
From the beloved Genie in Aladdin, to an English professor who taught us to “seize the day” in Dead Poets Society and the vibrant gay cabaret owner – one of the first gay film heroes – in The Birdcage, Williams practically raised us all.
Well, as far as Hollywood screen legends are concerned.
And, like the death of a loved one, we’re still feeling it pretty hard one year later.
While there’s an void you can’t fill left in the entertainment industry, and some of our favourite films from times past are now plagued with an air of sadness despite their nostalgic glory, the lingering punch in the gut comes from the fact that Williams committed suicide. He also did so in one of the most violent and deliberate ways possible.
Not only did it leave a disturbing visual, but also a rattled, spiralling mind for us to evaluate.
Admittedly, in addition to the shock and undeniable sadness, most of us felt a little – although selfishly – betrayed. How could he do this? Why him? Could nobody have stopped him? Most of us had the same thoughts.
Once the initial shock subsided, we all tried to wrap our minds around the larger issue – his mental illness. Most of us probably thought about the people in our lives who suffer from things like addiction (Williams had been vocal about his struggles with substances), depression, anxiety, and other metal health issues.
After all, when one in five Canadians will suffer from a mental illness at some point in our lives, it’s something that’s either affected us all in some way already or likely will at some point. And if someone like Robin Williams is capable of suicide, then so is pretty much everyone included in that “one in five” statistic.
Williams’ untimely death reminded us all that mental health issues don’t discriminate. Not even for an adored Academy Award-winning screen legend. Or a man with three children, millions of dollars, and a home in Paradise Cay, California.
Or, one who had a light and energy that none of us ever thought could burn out.
But the thing is, sometimes the loudest laughs, brightest smiles, and funniest jokes can disguise the most pain and suffering. For that reason, if young professionals weren’t discussing the somehow still taboo issue of suicide beforehand, they certainly were after Williams’ death.
Some of the world’s most successful people have battled demons most of us could only imagine – and these are just some of them in Hollywood.
Luckily, there’s a growing dialogue surrounding mental health issues that’s coupled with an initiative to break down the lingering stigma. Thanks to campaigns like Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, we’re making major headway.
And, the silver lining in Williams’ death is that it immediately started a brave and powerful movement on social media as well, as people “came out of the closet” to share their own struggles with mental illness.
But there’s still a long way to go. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another suicide of a celebrated public figure to keep the conversation going.