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The death of Robin Williams prompts grass-roots conversation about mental health

Robin Williams in 2005. Tiziana Fabitiziana/AFP/Getty Images

“When I'm in a bad depression I think of those who are fighting right along with me. One of my favorite fighters is now gone.”

“For what it's worth, one of his movies got me out of the psych ward.”

“I have my mom telling me not to tell people I have bipolar disorder.”

“I have mental illness; however, I am not my mental illness.”

These are among the sentiments expressed as the collective mourning over Robin Williams’s suicide sparks a conversation about depression and mental illness.

The comments above are just a sampling of the discussions around social media channels run by mental health advocacy groups. Those on the front lines who help people struggling with mental illness say there has been a sizable uptick in activity among people speaking up and reaching out.

“People in general don't share. They don't talk to their friends and colleagues [about mental illness], they don't share at work. It's almost like collectively, from the grassroots way, that somebody turned on the faucet,” said Katrina Gay, director of communications for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “They feel sad, and they feel stirred. There's a lot of stirring that I’ve noticed, that mental illness affects almost everyone, and that's something people have been opening up about.”

Williams touched many generations. He rose to stardom in the 1970s and remained culturally-relevant. He performed across genres. Baby boomers met him as Mork. Generation X knew him as the cutting-edge, driving force behind "Comic Relief." Millennials cherish him as Mrs. Doubtfire. He made everyone cry in "Good Will Hunting."

That universal familiarity has prompted an informal dialogue online, where Gay noticed a common sentiment expressed: “This is really scary. I’m really rattled. I’m already having a difficult time. If this can happen to him, I can lose my battle, too.”

Williams’s media agent said he had “severe depression,” but he hadn't been so public about possible mental health struggles. Williams had been open about his experience with substance abuse, including cocaine-fueled hallucinations that he recounted in his 1986 one-man show. His wife Susan Schneider also revealed Thursday that he was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease.

Regardless of the specifics of what led to Williams’s suicide, his death has inspired many different journalists and public personalities to to speak out about their experiences with mental illnesses, starting Monday night as news of his death spread.

And this conversation is reverberating across the social web. For instance:

  • NAMI’s Facebook page typically reaches 91,000 people a day. On Tuesday, it was 1.1 million, and direct messages from people offering support has increased five-fold.
  • NAMI's You Are Not Alone Tumblr, where people can post stories, has exploded with posts and shares, which both increased 10 times.
  • The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, which has chapters and support groups across the country, has also been abuzz with activity, said president Allen Doederlein. People are more frequently sharing their stories with each other, Doederlein said, while their Facebook page has had a nearly 500 percent increase of unique users this week.

Mental health advocates are hopeful about the increased chatter. “When we see people speaking out, it changes everything. It puts them in the forefront. They’re empowered now, and to talk, it becomes cathartic for so many people,” said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association of New York State.

Research supports this line of thinking. A 2012 study published in the journal World Psychiatry found peer-to-peer support among those with severe mental illness has the potential to increase hope, control, self-care, and sense of community belonging, while decreasing depression and psychosis. This happens when the support, which is facilitated by people who have been trained, “involves positive self-disclosure, role modeling and conditional regard,” researchers note.

Coming out with your own story also provides an opportunity for acceptance and support from others who face similar problems. And that interaction impacts those offering help, too.

“Peer support, it is mutual. You’re not only getting a benefit if you participate in the group, if you are a facilitator, you are still a person with a lived experience,” said Doederlein. “You do receive a benefit.”

Suffering in silence is challenging, and also dangerous. Sharing struggles “is extremely useful because what we want to do is screen for depression,” said David Kaplan, American Counseling Association's chief professional officer. “Lack of energy is the benchmark between sadness and depression.”

The act of sharing connects to the theory of “universalizability,” Kaplan said. We are social creatures, he said, and “it is extremely helpful to know that there are other people struggling with our problems,” he said.

Usually, when a national tragedy or event kicks off a conversation about mental health, attention wanes as the event recedes out of the public consciousness. Will it be different this time?

“It’s too early to tell,” Liebman said. “Maybe this is that moment that changes the trajectory in terms of suicide prevention around the country. Maybe this is the moment we look back at and say, ‘Wow, this is an awful tragedy. But look at the positive that came out of it.’”

Additional resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK)

Facts about mood disorders, via DPSA

Helplines, via NAMI

Suicide prevention, via National Institutes of Health