When talking about the tragic death of actor/comedian Robin Williams, the words most often used are “shocking.” Or “unbelievable.”
These descriptions have been rolling off the lips of celebrities who worked with him, as well as us regular Joes who enjoyed Williams’ unparalleled talents over the last four decades.
Among those deeply affected is retired comedian Buddy Erdos of Big Rock, whose career included 12 years doing impersonations for Hollywood Casino, and once worked with Williams in Boulder, Colo, where the actor’s first series, “Mork and Mindy” was partially filmed.
Friends in the business, he told me early Tuesday, have been calling nonstop since the news hit that Williams had committed suicide a day earlier by hanging himself.
“I almost can’t talk about it, even this morning,” the 64-year-old East Aurora High School alum said. “It blows my mind.”
No easy answers
Of course there are no easy answers to why people commit suicide, said Eric Ward, executive director of Family Counseling Services in Aurora. But not only did the actor have a history of depression and substance abuse, two factors that make up 90 percent of suicidal people, Williams was suffering from heart problems, which puts him into an even more vulnerable category.
And men are six times more likely to commit suicide than women, Ward pointed out, particularly as they grow older.
Plus, those in the creative arts seem to be at higher risk. Ward says his own take on that is people like Williams are able to see light in a very dark world, which is what endears them to us. Yet the problem is, much of their lives is spent in that darkness.
“We are sad,” said Ward, who grew up watching Williams on the big and little screens and ranks him “one of my favorite actors, but we should not be shocked.”
Stephanie Weber, executive director of the Batavia-based Suicide Prevention Services, agrees. Perhaps the fact Williams lived as long as he did with those many problems is because “he did seek out help over and over,” and was more than willing to talk about his demons in public.
“But at some point,” she noted, “he just could not take the dungeon anymore.”
And that’s what makes his suicide so hard for us to grasp, says Trish Jones-Bendel, chief nursing officer and director of patient services for Linden Oaks at Edward in Naperville.
“Few people could make us laugh as much as Robin Williams,” Jones-Bendel said of the comedian who she, too, grew up watching and loving. But because he was so beloved, it’s important we put the spotlight on his death as a reminder to all of us that depression can strike any of us, even the most successful, the most revered among us.
“The sad part is, he did so many things right,” she said of Williams’ many attempts to get help. “But that one time, he made the decision not to reach out.”
The suicidal state of mind is a “dark, dark place” those of us who don’t struggle with depression can’t truly understand, Jones-Bendel added. But it is also a temporary place.
And it is up to the rest of us to notice changes in behavior, notice the spark is gone from the eyes of a loved one, their language is changing and he or she may be expressing signs of hopelessness.
“We have to be present in our interactions with others,” Jones-Bendel said. “And we need to be able to connect with them.”
Weber, who predicts the SPS hotline will be more active, and there will be more walk-ins in the wake of Williams’ suicide, says awareness in the aftermath of this tragedy is a positive thing.
But she also agrees responsibility falls on the rest of us to pay attention to those who, like the comedian, struggle with depression. And if someone reaches out to you in a time of crisis, “stop what you are doing, no matter how busy you think you are.”
Erdos says he met Williams at a comedy club where Erdos was performing. The “Mork” actor was in costume and spent an impromptu hour on stage “blowing everyone away.”
“He was fast as lightning, so brilliant,” added Erdos, who had to follow Williams’ act.
Later that night, Erdos said, he and Williams had a few drinks together and the star encouraged him to take his talents to L.A. Erdos said when Williams returned a month later to Boulder to perform in a large arena, he even requested Erdos open for him.
“I didn’t do it,” he said. “No one can open for him … he was just too good.”
Erdos said he worked as a psychiatric aid at Mercy Center in between college stints, so he’s seen “how powerful” depression can be.
Still, he can’t wrap his head around his idol’s final act.
“I can’t imagine,” he said. “I don’t know what it must be like …”Tags: mental health, Robin Williams
Suicide Prevention Services Hotline: 800-273-8255
Family Counseling Service of Aurora: 630-844-2662
Linden Oaks 24/7 Help Line at 630-305-5027.
Also, Linden Oaks at Edward offers a free, five-minute online screening that can determine if a person is at risk for depression. To take the DepressionAware test, visit www.edward.org/depressionaware.
Follow-up steps are triggered if a person’s score suggests a heightened risk of depression. If a phone number is provided, the person will receive a call within 24 hours from a Linden Oaks clinician, who will offer a free mental health assessment. If contact information is not submitted, the DepressionAware screening provides the number at Linden Oaks so a person can schedule a free assessment. Reports from these sessions are shared with a psychiatrist who determines the level of care needed. The final recommendation can be linking the patient to counseling and other resources in the community, or to hospital-based services, such as a partial hospitalization program or inpatient care.