The Washington Post

Robin Williams: The help failed, not him

(Touchstone Pictures)

I first saw “Dead Poets Society” at a sleepover in seventh grade. It was a strange choice; I guess we decided we’d watched “Dirty Dancing” enough. Anyway (spoilers!), at the end of the movie Robert Sean Leonard’s handsome, eyebrowed, sensitive character kills himself after his father forbids him from pursuing acting.

“That’s a pretty stupid reason to kill yourself,” one friend said as we all pretended we were way too adult to cry at a movie. “Just because you can’t do plays anymore.” But I understood, and I figured I was the only one.

I feel like I have so little of meaning to say about Robin Williams, especially when I feel like nearly everything has been said. I’m at the point where I can only cynically note that at least we are having a conversation about mental health that didn’t immediately follow a mass shooting.

The media-Facebook-Twitter deluge has one overarching message: Get help if you need it. That’s important, but what makes me so desperately sad about Williams’ apparent suicide is that it seems he HAD help. He did everything right and things still went terribly wrong.

I’ve spent some time in that place where the darkness is so profound that you can’t see a single glimmer. Eventually — after a lot of eventuallys — I did the right thing, too. I got help. My help looks like a nightly pill and a pair of running shoes; a brown-eyed boy and his blue-eyed dad. But I haven’t won; it’s a draw until I die of something else. I don’t know why it worked for me and not for Williams. But we need to stop insinuating (or saying outright) that Williams died because he didn’t get help. He died because the help didn’t work.

Celebrating some mystical idea of “help” as a cure for mental illness is just as much a mistake as saying chemo cures cancer. It doesn’t; it attempts to TREAT cancer. And sometimes it fails, but that failure is not on the patient. It’s not Williams’ fault he felt the only cure for his depression was the one that is, to be frank, guaranteed to work — especially when society has set up a false expectation that treatment for mental health works every time. No other disease puts that kind of pressure on the patient.

The past few days, one of the final scenes from “Dead Poets Society” kept coming back to me. It’s the one where John Keating — the role that got Williams his second Oscar nomination — breaks down in his office after his student’s suicide. I used to think Williams’ performance in that scene was a blend of sadness and anger; after all, not being able to do plays IS, on the surface, a pretty stupid reason to kill yourself. Now, though, I think that Keating — and Williams — understood why the kid would do it. And he thought he was the only one.

Want more film?

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“The Fault in Our Stars” shows the blunt force of cancer


Kristen Page-Kirby covers film, arts and events for Express.



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