Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Williams 2: "Teach your children well..."

In my last post, I talked a little about what I see as general misconceptions about depression and suicide. Mostly, I pointed out the danger of seeing the act of suicide as a normal choice -- it is a "choice" whose scale is tipped by the heavy thumb of chemical imbalance. It is neither an act of cowardice, in standard terms, nor a laudable exit. Robin Williams, having had a chance to clear his head of whatever chemicals (natural or otherwise) might have been clouding it, might have awakened with a desire to live his life, again. (I am not alleging that he was drunk or high; I have not seen any evidence that he was, but given his past, it is a possibility. *THIS JUST IN: Williams was sober when he died.)

With all of that said, let's not just write off depression as a chemical imbalance against which there is no defense. The first defense is logic. Pure, sweet, sound reasoning.

It is my humble opinion (which is purely based on observation, and not on any kind of official qualifications or certifications in psychology or counseling) that if we teach our children to reason through their moods, they will steadily become more equipped to deal with those moods. We don't do nearly enough to help kids deal with the storms of emotions, both positive and negative, that they will deal with in their lifetimes.

It is a shame Mr. Rogers is gone. As a child -- maybe seven or eight -- I remember seeing Mr. Rogers say: "It's okay to be mad. It's natural. But you have to be the master of your mad." This, to me, at the time, was a revelation. He validated the feeling but qualified the circumstance: you need, as a citizen of the world, to keep your control, even when you are angry. Your anger does not give you a right to strike out at others. And, in parentheses, is the idea that you will gain much satisfaction and esteem by knowing you are the master of your actions, if not of your emotions.

But, it seems to me, that when we ignore coping skills (which we pretty much do in schools, with the exception of the occasional assembly with a counselor) we allow for a lifelong clogging of the emotional arteries. Some people grow up avoiding their emotions (which is foolish, because you are supposed to cry); others cover their emotions with drugs or alcohol; still others embrace a self-centered and self-destructive expression of those emotions.

If it is true (and I think it is) that chemicals cause emotion and emotions also, in turn, cause chemicals, it would seem that if one can reason through sadness, one can control the mental chemical spills to an extent. Both reasoning and positivity can have an effect.

I have this picture on my desk, of my studious dog:

When times are tough, this picture (as well as at pictures of my family) can have a dramatic effect on my mood. But I had to put it there and I had to recognize how helpful it can be when I feel like the world is turning against me... I am prepared. When I was dealing with cancer and was lying on the table waiting to have my neck biopsied, I was near to trembling...but I picked up a picture of my baby son, smiling a baby's smile, and I physically felt the warmth settle into my chest. The trembling stopped.

One might say (and with good reason): "Yeah, but what of the person who has nothing; to whom fate has dealt an awful blow; who doesn't have an adorable son to save him from the depths of pain?" Great point, but it is important that we distinguish clinical depression, with no apparent, direct cause, from depression caused by awful circumstance. At least with depression caused by circumstance, we can fight back in tangible (if not always effective) ways. (For example, I could go to the doctors who helped me or a person who is out of work can keep looking for a job...)

We also need to subscribe to and instill in our kids a "this, too, shall pass" mentality. We need to teach them that even if there is no such thing as a perfect future, there is a such thing as a better day that the present. Like I tell my sons: "It stinks to have to go back to school after a fun summer, but good things are around every corner -- good times in school, with friends, and the next "time-off" are all coming up.

And along the same lines, what good would happiness be without sadness? To some extent, we need to teach our kids to embrace the "bad" because without it, there would be no "good." Every storm has its end.

Are these foolproof? Of course not -- not in every situation. But they just might stave off the chemical imbalance in the future, from which there is no return.

Could it be that Robin Williams avoided his negative emotions with his comedy? We know he avoided them with drugs and alcohol. What happens when a person constantly dips into the endorphin supply for sixty-three years?  Is what we saw the result?

What was this dynamo of a man missing? Coping skills; clarity of reason, I think. "Genius" is an overused word, but I think it applies to Williams. A person with his energies needs to be taught to channel them and to be able to deal with a personality as dynamic as his (with great, energetic highs come great, energetic lows). He needed someone to be to him what his character was to Will Hunting:

I may be wrong about some of the science, but my gut tells me that the grim end of depression can be avoided by emotional guidance and intellectual clarity. I think we, as a society who focuses, educationally, more on outward achievement than inner peace, are dangerously ill-equipped to both teach and to practice such emotional wisdom.

I see bad coping skills -- and here is where is would be cool to hear from a psychologist -- as similar to bags of potato chips. If one keeps eating bags of chips, one's arteries clog and the heart can fail after years of accumulated bad practice; if one keeps shoveling emotions under rugs and going down the wrong escape routes, the mind can fail, along with the metaphoric heart.


  1. I'm far from being a psychologist, but I have a 2-year diploma. What you're suggesting is similar to rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) -- a logically and empirically based psychotherapy which has an insurmountable amount of research validating its efficacy. The only different between your suggestion and REBT is that you're suggesting it be implemented before any signs of depression occur. This is actually, believe it or not, more closely aligned with the field of philosophy, as opposed to psychology. There's actually a manual protocol for applying REBT as treatment for people with depression:

    And as you can see, there's an organization which centres around REBT.

    I really like your idea, from a personal standpoint. I think logic and reasoning have so far escaped the western world that we may very well be headed towards one particular Mike Judge film. If rationality is capable of warding away the evil hand of depression, then I see it as all the more reason why we should start further orienting ourselves with philosophy.

    Sadly, I fear that such ideas will fall on deaf ears. It's much easier to live in a world where we think medicine is miracle, and logic is laughable. I'm sure you've seen it in your own classroom that some of the most sound-minded thinkers are the ones who are the most ridiculed. While REBT is a veritably effective way to counter certain emotional disorders, it's an inconvenience to take manners into your own hands when there are other alternatives. Yes, I'm calling us lazy.

    On a side note, you were pretty spot on with the science. For any parts that were controversial, I'd need an R03, a month's time, and a few bottles of Pinot Noir to explain, hahaha. Again, thank you for writing this. I'm really enjoying the approach you're taking with this situation.

    P.S. A bit of a confession, in a question's guise: do you find it odd that Mr. Williams's wife said he was sober at the time of his death, but wasn't there to see him, and wasn't the one who found him? It could be a semantics issue, but it struck me as unusual.

    1. Alexis -- Thanks for the info; good to hear I might be sniffing on the right trail. In truth, I am just saw a news clip that stated he was sober; I assumed it was from the toxicology report from the autopsy, but it would be a different animal if it were his wife made the claim -- unless she, too, had been referring to the report...

  2. I think it's important to distinguish between straightforward depression and the bipolar disorder that Robin Williams suffered from. I've watched Robin Williams being interviewed over the years and he was clearly manic on many occasions. It must have been hell to live inside his head. I'm amazed that he made it to 63.

    1. Hi, Steerforth -- Good point. I wonder, though, if even bipolar disorder isn't something that can be mitigated or (perhaps) avoided; if buckling to its effects aren't just another manifestation of society's flaw of under-equipping its kids emotionally. I ask this as a pure rhetorical question (and, again, maybe some psychologist out there will see and respond): can early recognition of one's own bipolar highs and lows help that person to navigate through them or even to defeat them. I do wonder.