Robin Williams’ tragic death and the revelation that he suffered from severe depression has shocked so many around the globe and in the acting community. How can a man who was so valued by the world, who was so charitable, masterful, and driven to make others laugh have been severely depressed? The wide appeal of Williams and his ability to make us feel deeply through his many roles, has resulted in pushing–if not jolting–the dialogue about mental illness forward. His death reminds us that people who suffer with depression are not so different from the rest of us, and they can go undetected by others for years. While Robin had been open about his struggles with alcohol and cocaine in the past, the degree of his suffering was largely missed.

The research indicating who is most likely to commit suicide can be elusive. Results may show white male doctors and dentists are the most at risk in one study, and another study will reveal that creative types like actors and comedians are at highest risk. The results seem to change by location, the period of time, and the specifics of the population. But in a British Journal of Psychiatry study, researches found that comedians scored significantly higher for psychotic traits than members of the general population. But being able to see the humor in real-life situations and negative experiences, sharing humor with a receptive audience, and being able to make others laugh can lift comedians’ spirits, be cathartic, and have some therapeutic value. Doctors explain that comedy benefits emotional and physical health by increasing blood flow to the brain, and increasing brain chemicals that help minimize mood disorders and depression. Essentially, sharing their life narrative and laughing at their humanity helps comedians with their mental health. On the flip side, a comic’s job can be particularly trying when jokes are met with silence from the audience–or worse when they “bomb” or get heckled– and it’s stressful for comedians when they hit a dry spell and the jokes are not coming to them as easily. Many have argued that the “manic” side of manic-depressive disorders, AKA bipolar disorders, can help provide comics with a bounty of material as their brains process information in a unique way as well as providing material from life experiences stemming from the disorder.

The idea that comics are prone to depression is real enough for the owner of the Laugh Factory comedy club, Jamie Masada, to take seriously. According to the L.A. Times, the Los Angeles club started in-house therapy sessions starting in 2011. Masada said, “This is serious. This is something we have to do. From Richard Jeni putting a gun in his mouth and blowing himself up [in 2007] to Greg Giraldo taking drugs and overdosing [in 2010], I just can’t stand to watch all of my family, one by one [self-destruct].” Masada named Sam Kinison, Rodney Dangerfield, Paul Rodriguez, and Dom Irrera when he claimed, “every comic, they have a little demon in them.” Keep in mind, actors rate just behind comics when it comes to mental health statistics. Comedians and/or actors who are known to have struggled with major depressive disorder include Roseanne Barr, Jim Carrey, Woody Allen, Drew Carey, Richard Lewis, Patton Oswalt, Conan O’Brien, Winona Ryder, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brad Pitt, Brooke Shields, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Silverman, Uma Thurman, and Owen Wilson. Just goes to show how Hollywood glamour is only skin deep! In other words, don’t always believe what you see.

Kevin Breel is a comedian and activist who wants to shine a bright light on the darkness associated with depression. When he was a teenager he had everything going for him. That is, he excelled in school, he socialized with many friends, won awards in English and drama, and he was the captain of the basketball team. But when his best friend died in a car crash, and then later his parents divorced, he plunged into the depths of depression–all during his teen years. By the time he was 17 he came close to ending is own life. In despair, he started pouring out his feelings with pen and paper, and when he came to the end of the page he had a revelation. “I realized that I have never once talked about any of these things. Never. And if someone were to read this–a friend, a family member, my coach, my teammates–they would have no idea. And I thought that I can’t quit on myself until I try and help myself.”

Breel has courageously stepped forward to share the story of his inner battle with depression, hoping others who are suffering will realize they are not alone. First, he started sharing his real struggles at school assemblies, seeking to inspire others to be more sensitive to sufferers. And now he says, “As much as I hate some of the places that my depression has dragged me down to, in a lot of ways I’m grateful for it.” Hoping to move the conversation of depression forward and help shed the disgrace and shame associated with it, he did an 11-minute Ted Talk sharing his struggles. He believes the talk went viral because his story is so common.

Approximately 350 million people around the globe suffer from depression according to the World Health Organization. And statistics from 2009 found that suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.. But money for research is lacking because many continue to regard depression not as a serious mental illness but as a personality flaw. The signs and symptoms include: sad mood, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities, social withdrawal, loss of energy, fluctuation of weight, inappropriate guilt, difficulty concentrating, and in some cases suicidal thoughts. Some brave souls garner the fortitude to speak out about their personal battles; by doing so they help others who are suffering, first of all, letting them see that they are not alone. And they encourage sufferers to seek and continue therapy and treatments through qualified professionals. As far as comics are concerned, doctors encourage in-depth talk therapy and perhaps experimenting with various medications–and not solely relying on comedy routines to provide relief.

It takes an enormous act of bravery for those with severe depression to reach out for help when they are feeling at their most vulnerable–especially with the existing misconceptions that the serious illness is a personality flaw. So, here’s to Kevin Breel for raising awareness. Let’s keep an eye out for each other, and be ready to support one another if ever needed. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

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