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Death of Robin Williams Shines Largest Spotlight Yet on the Depression Epidemic

Surely, in the outpouring of sadness, affection, and disbelief surrounding the death of Robin Williams it’s possible that you’ve seen the below video being shared, probably by a veteran or military friend of yours. The video shows Williams at a USO show in Kuwait as he starts his act for the troops. Suddenly, a recording of a bugle sounds and the entire audience stands and turns their back to the Oscar-winning comedian.

He stands onstage, hands crossed in front of him, unsure about what exactly was happening but aware enough to realize it was best he shut up and let whatever was happening happen. When the Retreat ceremony – during which the flag is taken down at dusk – was finished, Williams launched into a two-and-a-half improvised routine about how particularly jarring it was for a performer to see his entire audience wordlessly offer him their backs.

Robin Williams was a dedicated performer who donated much of his time, typically around the winter holidays, to touring with the USO to perform for deployed soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Like Bob Hope before him, Robin Williams not only traveled into war zones to entertain the armed forces, but sought to make them laugh…no small feat.

Still, the laughter doesn’t continue forever. Veterans commit suicide at a rate of about 22 per day. Struggles with substance abuse and depression plagued Williams’s – he often discussed it openly – and both of those are also symptoms of PTSD. Robin Williams had more in common with veterans than he may have thought.

Yet, in his death, Robin Williams serves once more as an example and messenger to the troops: It can happen to anyone. After the death in 1963 of President and Jackie Kennedy’s newborn son Patrick, there was significantly increased attention paid to improving neonatal care. Today, neonatal intensive care can be found in hospitals across America. Children who would have lived only days have gotten years, sometimes even full lives. So perhaps Robin Williams’s legacy may be more than just one of art and laughter.

The outpouring of sadness on social media and television has been unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime. The death of Michael Jackson and the election of Barack Obama may have been technically “bigger” events, but a significant percentage of the commentary for both of those events were negative. I have yet to see anyone say anything bad about Robin Williams.

It is not without irony that with his beaming smile and manic energy, that Robin Williams might become the face of clinical depression, hopefully one that sparks a renewed effort to finally treat depression like the massive epidemic that it is. According to the CDC, one in ten adults have depression and that number is thought to be soft. Perhaps, like poor Patrick Kennedy before him, Robin Williams’s last act might spark the kind of medical revolution that takes what seems hopeless and offers up a fighting chance.


About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.