RIP Robin Williams: Let His Final Verse Be This

5.0.2I burst into tears when the news alert appeared on my phone earlier tonight: we have lost Robin Williams to suicide.

As I cried, I began to judge myself because the world, this summer in particular, has been in such horrific turmoil: The war in Gaza; A new crisis in Iraq; A plane shot down over the Ukraine; A man strangled for no reason by the NYPD a few weeks ago—and now, this weekend, an unarmed black teenager shot in St. Louis. And I don’t often have visceral reactions to international news of such scale. Most of us don’t, I suppose, because we acknowledge bombs and Ebola and war and disease as part of the difficult world we live in. The same way we usually talk about mental illness in the abstract.

Until it’s too late. Until a teenager commits an act of incomprehensible violence. Until the president decides to pass a mediocre bill for the “mentally ill.” Until a television show sensationalizes a character who has bipolar disorder. Until, like today, it becomes tragic.

For me, the news is devastating not simply because, like most of us, I loved Robin Williams. But because as someone who has bipolar disorder, I am one of those people who, for years, has found strength in seeing his name on those silly lists of “famous bipolar people.” Sure, Kurt Cobain and Virginia Woolf are on that list, but, if Robin Williams can manage, I reasoned, so can I.

Read the obituaries for Robin Williams, and you’ll read about his struggle with depression, alcohol, drugs. Aside from a few niche and psychology sites, no one is talking about how Williams suffered from bipolar disorder. To be fair, Williams did not openly talk about having the disease, so it’s no surprise the reporters are not mentioning it. 

Nevertheless, we don’t like to talk about mental illness in this country. For decades, we have adored the brilliant manic energy of a comedian like Robin Williams who we just lost tragically to a mental illness that, perhaps, could be better treated were there more awareness, more dialogue, more honesty…

And then I have to stop myself. Of course, this is a tragedy. We lost him too soon. But we should remember the words of Whitman he spoke so beautifully when he played inspirational boarding school teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society:

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
—Walt Whitman
Robin Williams contributed countless verses. His madness, illness, disease, depression—they were only small parts of who he was until suicide took him from this world. Yes, took him. We always say “took his own life,” I don’t believe he chose this ending any more than those of us with mental illness choose our disease. Once the cancer has spread everywhere in the body, there’s no recovering. For whatever reason, he had reached a point of no return.


And so let Robin Williams’s last verse be this: mental illness is no less serious than any other illness. You don’t will mental illness away with gratitude journals or juice cleanses or ‘bucking up.’ The mentally ill need treatment. It’s claimed the life of a man who was, in my opinion, a human miracle. Let us work to raise awareness so more lives are saved in his honor.

10 thoughts on “RIP Robin Williams: Let His Final Verse Be This

  1. Yeah, this death hit me hard. Everyone around me could tell. I love that quote and that movie. He was absolutely brilliant.
    I understand how the Parkinson’s diagnosis put him over the edge. All of us with mental illness know there’s only so much we can take…


  2. I forgot to add that I kept thinking, couldn’t he have talked to someone? anyone? about what was really going on? what if? I admire your bravery and honesty. that is what saved me though I realize it’s not the path for everyone.


  3. his death brought tears to my eyes too. I felt a special connection with him over the years because of his movies, his heart, his passion. you words are so wise. his illness took his life. I cannot imagine such agony to drive a person to such an agonizing death, that living was harder than that. and I’ve known some pain. so sad, such a loss, and he did so much else to help others, much more than little old me, more than i’ll ever do. his comic relief funding drives, visiting shelters, entertaining the troops, making his friend, Christopher reeves laugh for the first time after his debilitating accident…. and on and on….


  4. I didn’t realize he was bipolar. He was a comedic genius and it’s so sad that he’s gone so young. Love your post, especially the Whiman quote. Hopefully his death will help decrease the stigma of mental illness and not sensationalize it


  5. I loved him the most in “Awakenings”‘ & “The Fisher King” .

    Remember his ‘inspirational teacher’ in “Dead Poet’s Society”
    inspired a student to suicide.


    • Thanks for the comment. I had a different reading of DPS, but I appreciate the note. And I will definitely make a point to see those other films, which somehow I’ve not yet seen!


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