We all wear masks. We wear masks to suit the social situation we find ourselves in. To put our best foot forward. To elicit a smile or a laugh. To develop and maintain our social connections through good humour. To be who we think others want us to be.
Sometimes, the “Life of the Party” is a mask unto itself, hiding genuine pain, sorrow and despair… hiding a hopelessness so deep and pervading, we perish the thought of letting others even glimpse a hint of the troubled waters that lie beneath. And so we don our masks, letting others see only what we want them to see.
The untimely passing of comedic actor Robin Williams is, I hope, an opportunity to be seized by the mental health advocacy community to raise awareness of the silent killer of men that is the stigma surrounding male depression. I can think of no better way for us to honour Robin’s memory than to ensure that his death by suicide is not in vain, by making it our mission to get the message out loud and clear that depression is a REAL illness — not a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness — that too often succeeds in shaming vulnerable men to a point of no return.
Statistics Canada estimates that 60% of deaths by suicide are attributable to diagnose-able depression. And while women are twice as likely as men to receive a depression diagnosis, men are four times more likely to die by suicide. Stigma drives these numbers, because men living with depression — covert, or otherwise — are too ashamed to admit to needing help, and to reaching for the help available. Why? Because from the time we are boys, we are told or led to believe that real men don’t cry. Real men suck it up. Real men have to be strong, and never show weakness.
Cultural conditioning and social stigma are the real culprits behind men’s masks. Are men biologically less prone to depression than women? Unlikely. It’s more likely depression is under-diagnosed in men, because men don’t seek the professional help they need, when they need it.
Courage and strength don’t hide behind masks. Courage and strength is taking off the mask to reveal our true selves… it’s standing up, speaking out and being counted. Courage and strength is being able to recognize that we are in trouble, to admit to needing help and to reach out for the help needed. Masking, hiding our ills only further fuels the shame, ensuring but one thing: continued suffering in unbearable silence.
Like the vast majority of us who grieve his loss today, I have never had the privilege of meeting Robin Williams. And yet, his passing somehow, in some way, feels deeply personal. Maybe its because thoughts of Robin bring back fond memories of side-splitting laughter and good times…times before I, too, was engulfed by the darkness.
I am one in nine men who has lived through a severe major depression. I traveled the path of least resistance for a while, masking my depression as a workaholic’s burnout. But I am shamed and silenced no more. I now recognize and acknowledge that I am part of a large, extended family of one in five people who are sick, not weak… people who are living with brain illnesses, not mental health “problems”. Members of a family that mourn the loss of a brother to the demons that took him away from us far too soon.
May you rest, Brother Robin, in the peace that eluded you so in your lifetime. You deserve no less.