Oh Captain, my captain: remembering Robin Williams 1951-2014

Beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams died by suicide on 11 August 2014 at the age of 63. As we approach the fifth anniversary of his death and to mark the National Suicide Prevention Conference 2019 I am republishing my tribute to Robin Williams.

The death of Robin Williams has struck many people, including myself, in a very personal way because he was that kind of performer: so giving, so immediate, so intense that he left no distance between himself and his audience. To witness a Williams performance was to be swept into its maelstrom.

There was no half-way with this gifted actor and comedian. Everything about Williams was full on, strictly all or nothing. And he was loved for it.

His manic turns on countless television interview shows were hilarious forces of nature: a tempestuous stream of consciousness that fused anecdotes, impersonations, observations, gags and routines that would leave audiences gasping for air.

But it’s also true that Williams was hiding behind these walls of comedic sound.

No doubt there were times when Williams revealed a little of himself during these interviews – be they on television, radio or print – but one could never be quite sure when the real Robin Williams was offering a glimpse of himself. He was in that regard like so many of the great comedians, always “on” and much preferring to be somebody else, at least when in the public eye. Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Jim Carrey come to mind.

Making a lot of noise, being the irrepressible wit, dominating discussion: these are ways for people with depression to hide – from themselves, and from those around them. But it’s also a way of pumping the air of life into a deflated soul. To stop long enough for life to overwhelm you is to curl up in a corner and wish you could disappear, while at the same time wishing you didn’t feel that way.

My guess is that while Robin Williams was making the world laugh – or, with equal intensity, cry – he was desperately trying to keep himself alive. It’s a battle he lost.

His death at the age of 63 has shocked the world, a world that felt so close to him, yet many of us will now realise, or will come to realise, that we barely knew this giving man. We were so busy laughing or crying that in idolising Robin Williams we didn’t notice that he was unraveling before us.

The demons that swirled within

In an era when living to 100 is barely remarked upon, 63 is so young, but the blessing of this loss is that it did not happen sooner.

Williams did not let us peer deep into his soul, but neither did he attempt to conceal the demons that swirled within. He was a recovered alcoholic, had suffered drug addiction and most recently severe depression and had recently checked himself into a rehabilitation centre.

These burdens were part of who he was – and some will argue that an artist without demons is no artist, or a lesser artist – but they did not define Robin Williams. The tragedy of this life cut so terribly short was that in giving so much to his friends and family, and to admirers around the world, Williams felt he had so little to give himself.

Depression is many things, but its characteristics include self-loathing, hopelessness and loneliness. Robin Williams’ art and comedy may well have been offsprings of these conditions, but they were also masks that enabled Williams to confront life every day. Which make his performances all the more remarkable, and tragic.

Williams’ talent was not simply a ball of nervous energy. He was a Juilliard-trained actor whose cinema performances were as varied as they were compelling, moving and hilarious. His best-known films include: Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991), Good Will Hunting (1997, for which he won an Oscar, having been nominated for the previous three films), Awakening (1990), Mrs Doubtfire (1993), The Birdcage (1996) and One Hour Photo (2002). He will also be known to a legion of fans as Mork in the landmark TV comedy Mork and Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982.

There is no ready answer

Beyond the shock, many will greet his suicide with the question “Why?” They will say that he was so successful, so wealthy, so loved, how could he possibly take his life?

These are questions, of course, to which there is no ready answer. But what answers there are have nothing to do with the gloss of Williams’ life. Everything we admired about Williams was the exterior he hid behind. We know that Williams was gifted, loved and loving. But he was also broken, bereft and afraid.

Is suicide a rational choice? I don’t know. But it is a lonely choice. And a desperate one.

Williams was married and had three children. His third wife, Susan Schneider, issued a statement in which she expressed her heartbreak: “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”

Williams’ death, ultimately, was not the death of a comic genius and actor, but of a man.

His death will shed momentary light on this darkest of scourges: depression.

Let me conclude by quoting Stephen Fry, who like this writer suffers from depression, but unlike this journeyman journalist has the gift of writing with an angel’s touch:

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former columnist and senior writer with BRW, the Australian Financial Review and The Bulletin. He was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2014 and has written extensively on his experience with depression since.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

ADDENDUM: Ahead of the fifth anniversary of Robin Williams’ death his son Zak reflected on his father’s mental health anguish. He recently told Good Morning Britain“As a family member and a child, you want to do everything you can to help soothe and ease what seemed to be intense personal pain. It was sad to see someone who was suffering so.” Williams’ wife Susan Williams has attributed her husband’s suicide to the debilitating brain disease Lewy body dementia, stating emphatically: “It was not depression that killed Robin.” 

 

 

It would be a great achievement, but we should drop the bumper-sticker promise to halve the number of suicides in 10 years

There’s something distasteful about politicians promising to halve the number of suicides in 10 years. That’s the commitment of the Victorian government. It’s also the policy that federal Labor leader Bill Shorten took to the electorate at this year’s election. But can it really be that simple? Can the tragic epidemic of suicide be solved as an equation? In just 10 years?

Despite the epic dimensions of the suicide crisis in Australia – each year 2000-plus Australians end their own lives – politicians have mostly looked the other way. But suicide has finally made it on to the political agenda, thanks to the tireless efforts of mental health activists.

It is just like politicians to reduce suicide to a mindless slogan, a mathematical fancy, oblivious to the agonising and very personal hell that each case of suicide represents. We cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life. Stephen Fry speaks of the “blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness” of depression, and so it must be with suicide. Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell.

Despite the unimaginable burdens that suicide victims carry, when they finally do take their own lives, even the closest family and friends report no clues or warning signs beforehand.

So, while halving the suicide rate in 10 years might sound a worthy and decisive goal, given the complex, personal, determined and often very secretive nature of suicide, how can politicians make this bold, not to say rash, commitment with such confidence? There is no doubt that carefully targeted strategies can prevent some suicides from occurring – particularly in communities with a high prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts – but it’s also true, if you will forgive the black turn of phrase, that suicide has a life of its own. No effort should be spared to reach every potential suicide victim, but bumper-sticker targets only trivialise the agony that somebody contemplating suicide must experience. Australia’s suicide epidemic is much more complex than such such neat targets allow for.

To some extent politicians can be let off the hook on this occasion because the ambitious and catchy promise to halve suicide in 10 years originated with the experts.

Three years ago this month an Expert Reference Group (ERG) on Mental Health Reform – headed by Allan Fels – presented a series of targets to then new Health Minister Peter Dutton which included the recommendation to reduce Australia’s suicide rate by 10% within four years and 50% within 10 years. (Another target was to “reduce stigma against those living with mental illness” by 25% within 10 years, which seems a somewhat nebulous goal.)

Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia and ERG member said at the time that the targets “have come from the mental health sector and the wider community”.

“Holding ourselves responsible to specific targets is essential to mental health reform,” Heath said. “They are ambitious targets but Australia can meet them – if we put our minds to it.”

The target strategy is well understood in business, as reflected in two well-worn management maxims: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; and if you don’t know where you’re heading, you’ll never get there.

‘Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years’

The National Coalition for Suicide Prevention (NCSP) believes targets, when supported by “evidence-based strategies”, are attainable.

Professor Helen Christensen, NCSP member and director of the Black Dog Institute, says such strategies have helped to reduce suicide by 30% in Europe.

“Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years in Australia and just doing what we have always done is not really going to make any difference to those rates,” Christensen told the ABC last year.

“It has been a scattergun approach and funding has been distributed in a non-organised way. Initiatives are very fragmented and some are run by the government and others by NGOs.”

Christensen rejects the view that suicide is “an individual thing” and therefore not preventable: “[T]he evidence is very clearly the case that we can prevent suicide.”

There can be no ignoring the tragic proportions of suicide in Australia – and therefore the need for action – but until recently that’s exactly what has happened.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data released in March, there were 2,864 deaths from “intentional self-harm” in 2014, making suicide the 13th leading cause of deaths in Australia. (Around 65,000 attempted suicide.) Three-quarters (75.4%) of people who died by suicide were male, elevating suicide to the 10th leading cause of death for males.

Suicide is endemically rooted in Australian society. Annual death tolls are remarkably consistent and suicide is the most common cause of death among Australians aged 15-44. At the beginning of this century (2001), 2,457 Australians took their own lives, similar to the toll in 2013 (2,522) and 2012 (2,574). The 2014 spike is the highest since 1997, when 2,720 died by suicide.

It seems remarkable given such colossal loss of life that it has taken this long for politicians to confront Australia’s suicide epidemic. That they have finally done so is only because mental health activists have been relentless in their calls for government action.

Activists took full advantage of this being an election year to make suicide a policy priority for the major parties.

During the election campaign, an alliance of leading mental health advocates led by former CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia and inaugural chairman of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, John Mendoza, released suicide data in 28 federal electorates to stir candidates and MPs into supporting a national suicide-prevention strategy.

Its analysis of the 28 electorates found that between 2009-12 suicide rates exceeded the road toll and all but five had suicide rates at “high to extreme in levels”.

Any other cause of death at such magnitudes would have resulted in “a very assertive, nationally co-ordinated response”, Mendoza said. “Suicide and self-harm are now major public health problems in Australia that require a [national] public health response.”

To the credit of Mendoza and other suicide-prevention activists, this year has seen promising if belated political recognition of the need for concerted action on suicide.

‘No parent should ever bury their child’

Bill Shorten adopted the experts’ target of halving suicide rates over the next decade when he announced that a Labor government would invest $72 million to establish 12 regional suicide-prevention pilot programs in communities with high suicide rates, including in at least three indigenous communities.

Describing suicide as a “hidden story in this country” – in fact, not hidden, just ignored – Shorten also pledged $9 million for a national suicide prevention fund to support research into reducing suicides and programs to break down social stigma.

“Teenagers are taking days off school to attend the funerals of classmates who have taken their own life,” he said.

“Parents are sitting at kitchen tables, numb with incomprehension, shattered by grief, trying to write a eulogy for their child. No parent should ever bury their child. Yet seven Australians die every day at their own hand, every single day.”

Shorten didn’t get the chance to implement his promises, but for the first time a party of government had placed suicide front and centre on the national political agenda.

Victoria’s Labor government led by Premier Daniel Andrews is, however, in the position to implement a suicide-prevention strategy in his state. In 2015, 646 Victorians took their own lives.

“We cannot sit back and do nothing, and somehow accept that it is just the way things are,” Andrews said.

In July, he announced a strategy to halve Victoria’s suicide rate over the next 10 years by targeting at-risk communities.

The government has committed $27 million towards community-based support trials that will be implemented through sporting clubs, schools and other local networks. The program will also provide intensive support for people who have previously attempted suicide at six suicide hot spots throughout state.

The Victorian program will be implemented in 2017.

In August, an “integrated suicide prevention program” was launched in NSW with backing from the NSW Government, Commonwealth Primary Health Networks (PHN) and a $15 million grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Based on successful European models, the “Lifespan” program was developed by the Black Dog Institute and the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention.

The “evidence-based systems approach” will be implemented in four regional locations in NSW and involves the implementation of nine suicide-prevention strategies, including improved access to mental health care, quality education programs for people at the front line (emergency staff, teachers, GPs) and encouraging safe conversations about suicide in schools, workplaces and communities.

It is estimated that this new evidence-based program will reduce the suicide rate by at least 20% in “a few years” and suicide attempts by 30%.

These are welcome initiatives and hopefully herald ongoing government efforts to reduce the incidence of suicide in Australia.

Perhaps the “halving suicide in 10 years” promise was a clever ruse by savvy mental health activists to reel in politicians who tend to see things in terms of slogans and catchphrases. Given that politicians have notoriously short attention spans, it might also have been an attempt to lock them in for  10 years.

With suicide now on the political agenda, it might be best if we never hear again about halving suicide in a decade. Such promises have a way of turning into political red herrings that overshadow and even derail original good intentions. We need only recall Bob Hawke’s sincere but doomed “by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”.

We don’t need the artificial inspiration of arbitrary targets when it comes to the scourge of suicide – or child poverty, for that matter – we must simply acknowledge the problem and ensure that governments take the best-informed actions to overcome it. At long last, we now appear to be on that path.

In the meantime, as a community we can play our part by bringing suicide out in the open and ensuring that it never again becomes a “hidden story”. We must talk about it, we must confront it and we must do everything we can to understand and overcome this corrosive epidemic which is killing so many of our young people, and many others, in communities around Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, help is available from Lifeline ­(13 11 14), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).

 

RIP Sawyer Sweeten, the little boy from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ who became a young man who felt he had nothing to live for: when will this stop?

The death of former child actor Sawyer Sweeten attracted fond but fleeting media coverage. Sawyer, one of the twins on the much loved US television series Everybody Loves Raymond, committed suicide at his family’s Texas home. He was just 19, a few weeks short of his 20th birthday.

The series ran from 1996 to 2005 and has been a repeat staple ever since. But Sawyer, and his real-life twin Sullivan, who played Geoffrey and Michael Barone on the series, discontinued acting when the show ended and largely disappeared from view – except for their adorable television selves, and occasional cast reunions.

Many millions of people around the world watched Sawyer and his brother grow up on television over nine years; the twins were 16-month old babies when they began on the show as original cast members, alongside their TV parents Ray and Debra Barone (Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton), sister Ally (real-life sister Madylin) and extended family members played by Brad Garrett, Doris Roberts, the late Peter Boyle and Monica Horan.

Sawyer was visiting his family home in Texas, where he shot himself in an upstairs room, while family members were downstairs.

He was no longer the sweet little boy that we saw growing up on television, but a young man, described as “anti-drugs, very quiet and very shy”.

This won’t come as a surprise to viewers of Everybody Loves Raymond. Despite almost a decade on the show, the twins never grew into the precocious child actors we’re used to seeing on US television; on screen they were shy, awkward, ill at ease, fluffing lines and obviously following direction as best they could. They were not gifted child actors. But one suspects that it was precisely because we saw two happy little boys no different from little boys in our own families, rather than the slick performances of child prodigies, that we loved the Barone twins all the more.

What struck me about photos of Sawyer after the show finished in 2009 was that he was still very obviously shy and awkward in the public gaze. Recent private photos released by the family or posted on social media show a teen and young man who seemed doleful, even when smiling for the camera.

This is not a veiled accusation that others should have seen in Sawyer a suicidal young man. They would have seen a “very quiet and very shy” Sawyer being Sawyer. Suicidal tendencies will occasionally be so marked as to be unmistakable, but in most cases they are well disguised.

As is often the case with suicide, the family reports no clues, no warning signs, of Sawyer’s intention. Sawyer’s family will now be experiencing, along with the unbearable loss, the guilt and anguish that they did not discern the clues that may have saved his life. It is a fruitless torment, but understandable.

Madylin Sweeten posted on her Facebook page: “At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love. Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”

‘Let your loved ones know how much you care’

Sawyer’s on-screen grandmother, Doris Roberts, also took to social media: “It is with great sadness that I learned the news that Sawyer Sweeten, who played my grandson Geoffrey Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, died at his family’s home in Texas. He was a very sweet young man who will be dearly missed. Make sure your loved ones know how much you care about them, and please check in with them if you haven’t touched base with them for a while. It’s very important to keep in touch.”

These pleas, and others like them posted by heartbroken cast members, friends and family, reflect the anguish of those left behind and the torment that a troubled soul was left unattended to go down the lonely path of self-destruction. And yet it is hard to imagine that Sawyer felt unloved or discarded. Most likely he felt unworthy of that love and undeserving of the care of those closest to him.

Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell, but also, perversely, it is an act of love – a conviction that those closest to you are better off without you. Suicide victims carry unimaginable burdens that they can no longer endure, but very often they also feel themselves to be a burden to others.

The question that inevitably follows a suicide is “Why?”. It is never easy – or even possible – to adequately answer that question. In Sawyer’s case, suicide is a too common occurrence among former child stars. It is hard to imagine the sheer enormity of the transition they must make from child star to anonymous adult.

Professor Charles Figley of Tulane University in New Orleans, a psychologist specialising in trauma and resilience, says of child stars: “They often go from the height of fame to the depth of living without it. It’s more than the rest of us have to face.”

Chicago clinical psychologist Dr John Mayer, who specialises in treating children and adolescents, explains the difficulties posed by the unique circumstances of the child star.

“These kids are kept from the developmental skill building that most kids go through to make them capable adults. Such things as learning about rejection, loss, transitions, and the process of identity development are in limbo while the production companies unknowingly shelter them from those natural struggles a child or teen needs to go through. … They become ill-equipped, often dysfunctional adults. Many of these kids become adults with ‘holes’ in their development, and, at worst, they are emotional and social disasters.” (Quotes from Figley and Mayer reported by Korin Miller, Yahoo!Health, 25 April 2015.)

We can’t know why Sawyer took his own life. There are no reports of a suicide note, but suicide notes can just easily raise more questions than they answer. We ultimately cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life.

A little boy no more

The show’s creator Philip Rosenthal said in a statement: “We knew and loved Sawyer as a little boy. He and his real-life siblings Sullivan and Madylin were such a charming, integral part of our TV family. They never failed to make us laugh, or remind us how we feel about our own children. We are terribly sad to hear this news and our hearts go out to Sawyer’s family.”

We can surmise that being loved as a little boy who does not really exist, and being part of a fictional TV family that no longer exists, can weigh heavily on a sensitive heart.

For me, the death of Sawyer Sweeten is painful because I, too, loved that little boy and his twin brother. But as with any suicide, there are many strands to that sense of loss and grief. Sawyer’s death cut deep, and it wasn’t just as a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond.

My now estranged wife and I used to watch and enjoy the show, all the more so because we had our own twin boys whose age was not so far removed from that of the Barone twins. My boys will be 17 this year, and broken homes being what they are, I don’t see them as often as I would wish, and I can only celebrate their milestones second-hand. My grief at the distance which has been placed between me and my boys, coupled with the nostalgia of having watched the show with my wife, gave added poignancy to Sawyer’s death.

But that’s not my only connection to Sawyer’s lonely death (as all suicides must be).

My youngest brother Tony died by his own hand in 1981: he was 15, and like Sawyer, just a few weeks shy of his birthday. He shot himself in his bedroom – at a time when guns could still be kept in the home – when my parents went for an evening walk and left him home alone watching TV in his room. On their return, they found him dead; he had changed into his pyjama bottoms, the TV was still on. I was called from where I was living nearby and with my parents, in surreal disbelief, knelt over his lifeless body. I will never forget my parents’ quiet cries of anguish. “My son, my darling son,” my mother wept, “Why didn’t you tell us you were so unhappy?”

Tony was a shy, sensitive and very sweet boy. Only days before he died he walked up to my mother in the kitchen, hugged her and told her how much he loved her. One of the last photos taken of Tony was with me, just a few weeks before he died, in which we stood side by side. To this day I cannot look at that photo, guilt stricken that I did not have my arm around him to let him know how he dear he was to me. But in others of the last photos taken of him I can see sadness etched in his face, whereas much earlier photos of him showed a sweet, happy, almost angelic little boy.

What sadness had engulfed my brother in the days or weeks leading to his death? We know that he didn’t like the school he was going to, and my parents had promised he could change school at the end of the year. Reports subsequently surfaced that he may have been bullied at school, which breaks my heart, and you can imagine how my parents felt. We are all left with the forlorn wish that we could have done more.

Having initially acknowledged suicide, my parents quickly went into denial, such was the shame associated with suicide. (The coroner delivered an open verdict, but was of the opinion that in all probability it was suicide.) Even now, the subject is not broached.

Although I do not press my parents on the subject – why would I? – my view is that as a society we must talk about it; we must confront it, and we must do everything we can to understand this scourge which is killing so many of our young people (and of course many others) in our own communities and far beyond. We must do more in our schools, our heath systems, our community organisations, and in the media to raise awareness and understanding of suicide.

Suicides are deaths that can be avoided; but we have to learn how. We must tackle it as we would any other unwanted destructive element of society. Rather than fearing suicide as the last taboo, we should fear inaction on suicide. In the meantime, we can only farewell and remember fondly those who have slipped through our fingers.

Rest in Peace, Sawyer Sweeten. You were loved and you will be missed.

Let me end with your sister’s plea:

“At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love. Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”

Support and information about suicide prevention is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.