Photograph by Getty Image
The same words are seen so often: we will never really know… Why did Robin Williams – Oscar-winning actor, revered comedian, a man with fans all over the world – end his own life in August at the age of 63? We will never really know. Yes, there was a history of depression. And addiction. Possibly early symptoms of a debilitating illness. There had been a professional setback: a cancelled TV show. But only guesses can be made about his state of mind in his last hours. Less than a month after Williams’s death came news of another suicide, also in California: a young woman named Simone Battle. She made headlines because she sang in the pop group GRL, who had performed in Australia in August. Why would a 25-year-old who had already achieved some success do this? We will never really know. It was reported that she had been experiencing depression. Her father, Anthony Battle, was quoted as saying he was unaware of this, but it was “possible she may have had an invisible disability”.
Perhaps that’s not a bad way to think of mental illness – as something that, often, has no apparent physical manifestation. No wheelchair. No crutches or calipers or hearing aid or guide dog. An invisible disability.
It certainly appears there were no warning signs apparent to those who knew the Hunt family in rural NSW. Geoff Hunt, his wife, Kim, and their three children aged between 10 and 6 were well known and well liked in the local area, near Wagga Wagga. So shock and disbelief followed the news that, early in September, Geoff Hunt is believed to have killed his family and then himself. On TV, a friend expressed incredulity, saying: “There apparently were no signs…no one was expecting it.” Why did he do this? We will never really know.
In London, meanwhile, the inquest has concluded into the suicide of hospital nurse Jacintha Saldanha, 46, involved in a Sydney radio station hoax call in December 2012. This was a case that received international media coverage because of the Royal connections: the Australian DJs impersonated the Queen and Prince Charles. The NSW family tragedy was news because of the scale of loss: a whole family gone. The deaths of Williams and (less so) Battle resonated because of the celebrity factor.
Still, people felt they knew Williams; that is, they had laughed at his performances. The person off camera, away from a microphone, was essentially unknowable to all except those closest to him. And in the end he died alone – as do virtually all of the people who end their own lives.
Williams’s death has caused people to talk about suicide, which, until quite recently, was a taboo topic. It used to be necessary to decode the official language used: “no suspicious circumstances”. Now there is recognition that mental illness and suicide need to be discussed. Writing about the Hunt case in The Age, Stephanie Dowrick argued: “Where there are secrets, people will always be in significantly greater danger.”
Similarly, some who have attempted suicide are now speaking out. In the US, a former foreign correspondent, Cara Anna, has launched a website and established a support network for those who have had similar experiences to herself. She told The Guardian in the UK: “Is [attempted suicide] just so terribly shameful that we all have to walk around in silence after something so traumatic and dramatic?”
Suicide is no longer unmentionable. And it is okay to use the word ‘madness’. It is the title of Kate Richards’s memoir (see p19). Williams used it himself. In tributes after he died, this quote often appeared: “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” It is now possible to look at Williams’s performances, or consider his public persona, and see the same elements that might have led to his death. He was a manic comic; his energy, unpredictability and highwire, high-octane riffing was simultaneously extraordinary and exhausting. Imagine living with that.
In a 1986 interview with Playboy magazine, comedian Joan Rivers named Williams as a personal favourite: “There’s nobody like him. His mind is just wonderful.” Recently, she recalled talking to him: “It’s like you open the capsule and everything came out, all the air came rushing out. You popped the champagne cork when you said hello to him.”
His mind made him great; made him who he was. And his unruly mind, in the end, destroyed him. Leaving emptiness, pain and questions without answers for those who loved him. When all the fizz has gone from champagne, all that is left is flatness and a bitter taste.
See also beyondblue.org.au, sane.org, lifeline.org.au
This article first appeared in Ed#468 of The Big Issue.