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State of Wonder

Reflecting On Comedy And Mental Health In The Wake Of Robin Williams Passing

Live Wire head writer Courtenay Hameister joined us on this week’s State of Wonder to share some thoughts on the passing of Robin Williams.

In what appeared to be an attempt to make a bad situation even worse, Tuesday’s Toronto Sun featured a huge photo of a somber looking Robin Williams with a two-line headline: Sad Clown. The headline “Tears of a Clown” was also used by multiple outlets, as was “Pagliacci.” And while I understand that this might be an “if the clown shoe fits, wear it” situation, I’d like to point out that the idea that comedians as a population are somehow sadder than the rest of the world is short-sighted.

As Peter McGraw mentioned in his book The Humor Code, one of the reasons we may think comics are sadder or more messed up than the general population is because they actually talk about their pain, onstage, in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.

I’ve interviewed a lot of comedians, and almost across the board, they’ve said they developed their sense of humor as a coping mechanism. Oftentimes they were bullied, and it kept them from getting hit that 10th time. Or they came from chaotic homes, and used humor as a way of distancing themselves from their own experience. While some people pull their pain inside, comedians throw theirs out there, bake them into a pie and hit themselves in the face with it.

Most of the best standup routines result from a comedian mining his worst, most humiliating and shameful moments. When was the last time you heard a hilarious bit about that time someone’s day went really well? Robin Williams talked about his cocaine addiction, his alcoholism and depression in his standup. And when you hear the audience laughing, that’s not people laughing at his pain, it’s people recognizing themselves in his experience. And at the same time he gave his audiences the gift of not being alone in their pain, he got that same gift himself.

For him, that wouldn’t be enough to sustain him, because in Williams’ case, he was sadder than the general population – like approximately 6.7% of the people you meet, he suffered from a major depressive disorder. And because he brought so much joy into literally millions of people’s lives, the fact that he was suffering so acutely was shocking. The image of him taking his own life juxtaposed with him sitting on his head as Mork or giving a Shakespearean soliloquy as Schwartzenegger have caused a communal cognitive dissonance that’s uncomfortable and jarring, but more than anything else, heartbreaking.

But just like in Robin Williams life, in all this darkness, there is some light.

Because this tragedy, more than any I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, has caused people to come out of the closet about their own struggles with depressive disorders. On facebook, usually reserved for perfect family facades and happy vacation pictures, no less than 10 of my friends posted about their own struggles with depression. On Twitter, comedians, actors, musicians and civilians made it clear that depression hits everyone, and offered up their own advice for how to get through the toughest days.

About 80% of people seeking treatment for depression have been known to see an improvement in their symptoms, but studies show that nearly 2/3rds of people with depression don’t seek treatment—in many cases, it’s thought, due to the stigma around it.

In 1995, my father lost his life to bipolar disorder in largely the same way someone might lose theirs to cancer, and I strongly believe if he would’ve gotten treatment for it sooner, he might still be around. Depression is a disease. It’s not a character flaw or a sign of weakness.

Robin Williams, more than most comedians, was willing to show us every aspect of his humanity – his joy, his pain, his struggles. And maybe I don’t mind all this “Tears of a Clown” crap so much if it means one person sees how much a single life can mean to the world, and she finally tries to save her own.

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