Some selfish thoughts on suicide and Robin Williams

It’s been a depressing week, on all fronts.

On the war front, obviously. But that seems to be every week. The twenty-first century just seems to be one long rotating war.

It has also been depressing on the depression front.

Of course, we had the horrible news about Robin Williams hanging himself in his bedroom last Sunday night.

I hate hearing about famous people killing themselves. This is partly because it is sad to lose someone you ‘know’ even if you only know them in the sense that they have been in a lot of films and TV interviews that you have seen.   And Robin Williams was always someone we felt we knew. There was always so much of him.

Yes, sure, he was great in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. But even in The World According to Garp or Awakenings or more uneven stuff he was always brought an intensity – through manic comedy or sparkle-eyed emotion – that couldn’t be feigned. Even when he wasn’t so great it was because there was too much of a performance, never too little. The acting – as with the stand-up comedy – always seemed like a valve for the intensity inside. The rapid fire performance in, say, Good Morning Vietnam or the dark introversion of the child abuser in Insomnia being a kind of lava busting from an intense roaring molten soul.

So yes. There is that sadness. We’ll miss him. He made good stuff.

But also, as someone who has suffered suicidal thoughts, very nearly acting on them once, there is a kind of selfish sadness. A sense of strange dread. A thought that someone we can visualise and hear in our heads, someone who had the money to get the best treatment out there, who had family, who had support, who had been successful by almost everyone’s measure, had fallen victim to depression at the age of 63.

63. That’s the other thing. When I was suicidal I used to imagine there was a certain point where such a fate is less likely. Once I’d passed 27, that famous fatal end-point for suicidal rock idols, there was a sense of achievement. Like reaching the next level of a video game. Same when I passed 35. I was no longer in the 21-35 ‘young man’ danger category. But there are other danger categories. In America and the UK suicide rates for middle aged and older men have risen by as much as 40% since 1999.

I remember hearing of David Foster Wallace’s suicide at the age of 46 and thinking, oh crap, things can get worse. Then Hunter S. Thompson blowing his brains out one clear afternoon at the age of 67. So yes, depression is not just an illness that claims the young. It is increasingly an illness shown to be fatal at any age. Life isn’t a journey upwards. We do not always accumulate strength as we go. It can weaken our minds as well as our bodies. I started to worry that, if I had a diagnosis like Parkinson’s or had sudden money or life worries in my sixties it could trigger a depression I wouldn’t have the strength to recover from.

But then, let’s be rational. Just because Robin Williams killed himself doesn’t make it any more likely that we will. Suicide happens. But most cases of depression don’t end in it killing the sufferer. Winston Churchill never killed himself. Mark Twain didn’t. Long-term depressive Tennessee Williams ended up accidentally choking on the cap from his eye drop fluid in his eighties. And also, of course, a suicide shouldn’t cloud the whole memory of someone. When Virginia Woolf told her husband in her suicide note ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been’ she meant it. Depression is best thought of as a weather pattern. A hurricane might destroy a house that had enjoyed glorious sunshine a week before.


Of course, we are all going to die. Some of us will probably die in our sixties. The trick is not to fear this, but to accept it as the thing that gives life its value. ‘That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet,’ said Emily Dickinson. So let’s mourn those who gave us pleasure, but try not to mourn ourselves from the future. Let’s enjoy the fruit before it browns. Let’s taste the sweetness if we are able to. Let us be thankful for the moments we know, and never fret about the ones we don’t. Let’s live.