What We Can Learn From Robin Williams’s Suicide About Supporting Friends With Poor Mental Health

It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since the news broke that Robin Williams, beloved actor and comedian, had taken his own life at his home in California. We’ll all have a different role in our mind when we think of Robin. Mrs Doubtfire was a classic, as was The Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Then there were his more serious roles in the likes of Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society.

In every role and every interview, Williams’s energy and vibrancy shone through. His death shocked the entertainment industry and everyone who loved the man and his work, because we all could not believe that a man with such personality, who was so loved by so many, could have been so very sad behind closed doors. We asked ourselves: How could the man who was voted the ‘funniest person of all time’ have struggled to find happiness himself?

And that’s the sad truth about poor mental health isn’t it? Because most of the time it is completely invisible, it is all too easy to hide behind a smile and an “I’m fine”. So what lessons can we take from Robin Williams’s death? How can we ensure that our friends and family are not hiding stress, anxiety, low mood or poor health behind a brave face? 


Spot the signs

Changes in behaviour are often a tell tale sign of poor mental health. Some of the more common signs are:

  • Sleeping more often
  • Cancelling plans
  • Going out less
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Low appetite or eating too much
  • Lack of concentration/forgetfulness
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol 

If a friend or loved one is exhibiting the changes in behaviour then you should try and find out if there is a reason behind it. 


Ask The Question. Ask It Again.

We all ask and are asked dozens of times a day if we’re okay. It’s a question that we answer without really considering it. 

“Yeah, you?” 

“I’m Fine” 

These are the usual responses and they come as a reflex to the question. Sometimes it’s the truth, sometimes it isn’t. Behind the words, however, there is often more to go on. If someone pauses for a while before responding, if they fail to make eye contact, or if they sound down or low when they say it, then that is an indicator that you should ask again.

“Are you sure you’re okay” 

“Is something on your mind?”

“Talk to me, what’s up?”

If they still don’t want to talk about what’s bothering them, then you should encourage them to reach out if they change their mind. Quite often, people aren’t in the right frame of mind or the location might not suit pouring your heart out. Saying something as simple as “I’m worried about you, if you change your mind and want to talk later, call me” can give someone the confidence to get in touch at another time.


Listen to Understand

Sometimes asking twice IS enough to coax someone into opening up about how they are really feeling. If someone does open up, it is important that you give them the time to talk about what’s on their mind. Listen actively and non-judgmentally. 

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone, it’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel alone.” – Robin Williams

Non-judgemental Listening is a bit of a buzzword, but it is a useful skill to have and it essentially means listening to understand, you may have an opinion on the issues someone is facing when they talk to you, but it’s important to put your own thoughts aside and try to empathise with the way those issues are making your friend and loved one feel. Don’t be critical of their thought process and try not to interrupt. 


Recommend Self Help

Recommending a friend or loved one help themselves without coming across as judgemental is a fine art, but if done tactfully, it can put them on a path to getting better. Self help may be reaching out to their GP or a counselor, it may be going for a run or a walk to clear their head or it may just be having a bath and getting dressed. The important thing is to let them know that you care about them and that you’re there to help when needed. 

If you’re ever concerned that someone is having suicidal thoughts, then you should contact the NHS on 111. You can also recommend they call The Samaritans on 116 123. If they are a service person or veteran, then they can also call Combat Stress on 0800 138 1619 or get in touch with an All Call Signs listener by hitting the CHAT NOW button.

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