During that time, the entire campus made it a point to start talking about mental health. My favorite activity, however, was when one of the campus organizations made posters of celebrities who had mental health disorders. Imagine my surprise when I learned that both Tom Cruise and Jay Leno struggled with dyslexia. For me, seeing that even celebrities – people that we often view as perfect – had disorders really normalized the experience. I think it helped a lot of students too.
I was thinking about this recently after hearing that Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide last week. It was a shock to hear that this comedic genius had died. I had grown up laughing at the fun-loving Genie, admiring the antics of Mrs. Doubtfire, and wishing for a classmate just like Jack. I remember thinking, “How could someone so funny, so full of life, be dead? There has to be a mistake.”
As the story of Williams’ death continued to unfold, I noticed that many counseling websites were starting to post suggestions on how to discuss death and depression with kids. (On a side note, I STRONGLY recommend that you join some school counseling groups on Facebook, if you are pursuing this career. It is a great way to network with other counselors and share ideas and tips.) While reading some of these tips and ideas, my mother made a comment that she would’ve never thought Robin Williams would commit suicide.
“He’s a comedian,” she said. “You would think that comedians were really happy and easy going. Of all the actors, he is the last person I expected.”
That comment really made me think. Now that the school year is rapidly approaching, I have been spending more time thinking about my students and what this upcoming year will bring. Last year, I had dealt with my fair share of students who were depressed. The topic of suicide was one that I became familiar with, or as familiar with as you can become with such a sensitive, life-altering topic. Not to say that the students who expressed suicidal thoughts were “stereotypical,” but several of them had difficult situations that they were trying to overcome. Some were in abusive homes; some were being bullied; some were overwhelmed with what was being required of them. Out of all the students who came to my office, very few of them were “comedians” or class clowns. In fact, I probably spend a little less time obsessing at night over my funny students versus my more serious, quiet students.
But that’s how depression strikes and catches us off-guard. As a counselor, I am always prioritizing. It’s something that’s become second nature. But this recent tragedy has reminded me of several things. To start, depression does not attack people based on any particular qualities. ANYONE can be depressed. Young, old, Caucasian, African-American … It doesn’t matter. And how depression is expressed varies from person to person. Some people hide behind a mask, or persona, unwilling to let others see their true feelings. Finally, any mental disorder can significantly impair someone’s life. As a counselor, my job is to help make life a little easier.
So tonight, I’m going to spend some time thinking about my class clowns. Maybe I’ll call a few of them down to my office this year to check in. It doesn’t have to be extravagent, but I think a brief conversation is important. “Hi! How was your summer? If you ever need to talk, I’m here for you.”
We as a nation have already lost one great comedic personality. I’m going to do my best to prevent any more losses.