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Death of Robin Williams revived the worst myths and stereotypes about depression



‘I’m not the sort of person who gets…’

Ask any GP and they will tell you there is only one word that completes that sentence: not ‘heart problems’, ‘pneumonia’ and certainly not ‘cancer’. ‘Depression’ is the only condition, it would seem, that ‘some sort of people’ get and others don’t.

We know, of course, that not everyone is at the same risk of every illness – if you’ve never smoked, you’re not very likely to get lung cancer, for instance, but you wouldn’t describe yourself as ‘not the sort of person to get lung cancer’. It’s just a consequence of your lifestyle choices.

And this is why stigma in mental illness really matters, why society’s perception of mental illness is so important and why the media’s reaction to the death of Robin Williams needs to rise above the news interest and change public attitudes to depression.

Much of the media attention on the actor’s passing has been positive. As well as reminding us of the joy his acting brought to so many, there have been excellent examples of reporting on the issues of mental illness and suicide, among the best being Jonny Benjamin on the Today Programme on Wednesday morning. Jonny described his own illness with schizoaffective disorder, the depths of despair that led him to attempt suicide, and the simple act of human kindness that drew him back again.

Other media outlets have behaved less honourably – the Metro was quick to ignore the plea of Robin William’s widow that we remember the joys of his life rather than the manner of his death. Instead, it chose to subject Londoners to a front page splash, detailing unnecessary and disrespectful details of the method of his suicide.

It is not just the media that responds to events like this, but every man and woman on the street. William’s death will be the subject of conversations at the hairdressers, in the back of a black cab or in the doctor’s waiting room.

And one of the most common reactions to his death goes something along the lines of, ‘it just goes to show that money and success can’t buy happiness.’

What nonsense!

We must get away from the notion that depression is the opposite of happiness. The disease is something completely different that can strike both the happy and the sad. Until we get this message out there, our surgeries will remain populated by people telling us they’ve ‘got nothing to be depressed about.’

I’ve got patients who’ve got nothing to have cancer about too, but everybody gets ill. It’s part of life.

The other stereotype I’ve been puzzling over is that of the depressive comedian. Ann Atkins chose this as her theme for Thought for the daythe day after Robin Williams died, sharing numerous examples of ‘tears of a clown’ to make her point.

Apart from skating over three real-life cases, however, all her illustrations were from pantomime, opera and Shakespeare. Did they prove that comedy and depression are bedfellows, or just that the irony of a ‘comedian in despair’ creates a powerful literary figure? After all, doctors make great villains in crime novels and horror films, but I believe the reality of our profession to be somewhat different.

Of course Robin Williams is not the only comedian to have been affected by depression, but the disease is common in all walks of life. Even if there was a significantly higher incidence of mental illness among comics – which we would need a prevalence study to establish – ultimately, such stereotypes are unhelpful since they imply that mental illness happens to someone else. We cannot continue to hold that there is a particular sort of person who gets depression, and that it couldn’t possibly happen to any of us.

Dr Martin Brunet is a GP in Guildford and programme director of the Guildford GPVTS. You can tweet him @DocMartin68.