After the apparent suicide of Robin Williams, Sarah Freeman reports on the silent killer which claims the lives of thousands of men each year.
When we got our first video recorder, there were two tapes which we played until they broke. One was Steve Martin, Born Standing Up. The other was Robin Williams - Live at the Met.
Williams was already famous then of course. Mork and Mindy had turned him into a star a few years early, but on that stage, with his own words, he had never burned more brightly.
Speaking at 100mph, he rarely drew breath throughout that hour-long set. It was as though he feared if he stopped someone might realise there’d been an error and ask him to step away from the spotlight. He talked of his early demons, how he’d given up drink and the addictive qualities of cocaine which he called the ‘devil’s dandruff’. Watching that footage now as Williams grows more animated with every new round of applause it’s almost impossible to believe that this was the same man who confessed to feeling “alone and afraid” when he started drinking again in 2003, after 20 years of sobriety.
The admission came during an interview with the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead in 2010 as Williams was promoting World’s Greatest Dad - a film about a father who fakes a suicide note from his dead son.
“It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, ‘Oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t’,” he said. Asked what he was afraid of, he replied: “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.”
Williams, who had just undergone heart surgery, confessed too that he had been a workaholic. He told Aitkenhead: “You have this idea that you’d better keep working otherwise people will forget. And that was dangerous. And then you realise, no, actually if you take a break people might be more interested in you.”
The drinking had begun again while he was filming on location in Alaska and while he had refrained from cocaine, knowing it would kill him, he realised within days that he was in trouble.
“For that first week you lie to yourself, and tell yourself you can stop, and then your body kicks back and says, no, stop later.”
It was three years before he went to rehab, but with Williams continuing his recovery by attending weekly AA meetings he seemed to be in a good place. At the time of the interview he said he felt happier and was “not afraid to be unhappy”, adding: “That’s OK too.”
However, the dark clouds of depression can descend again without warning and when they do, men in particular find it difficult, sometimes impossible, to seek help.
Last year, in a podcast with fellow comedian Richard Herring, Stephen Fry talked about his own experiences with bipolar disorder, which causes mood swings from mania to depression, and admitted the previous year he had tried to end his life.
Fry, who is also president of the charity Mind, said he had decided to speak out in the hope of puncturing a few of the taboos surrounding mental illness.
“The whole point in my role, as I see it, is not to be shy... about the morbidity and genuine nature of the likelihood of death amongst people with certain mood disorders,” he said, adding there was “no reason” for someone wanting to take their own life. “There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life.”
Fry’s admission was welcomed by mental health charities whose biggest hurdle is ending the silence which so often prevents people seeking help. The Campaign Against Living Miserably was launched in Manchester by the Department of Health in 1997 in response to a nationwide spike in male suicides.
With the help of Factory Record’s Tony Wilson the idea was to target men by using sport and music brands as a platform with nightclubs giving away leaflets and radio stations providing free airtime to promote the campaign.
“The fact is that 77 per cent of all suicides are male,” says director Jane Powell, who relaunched CALM as a charity when the original funding stream ran out in 2006. “Why? Partly it’s because men are expected and expect to be in control. Women have much less of a problem admitting they need help, they can talk about their problems in a GP surgery or to the person sitting next to them on a bus.
“We still expect men to be self-sufficient and there is a general unwillingness to talk about suicide. It’s seen as a sign of failure rather than a health condition, which is what it is.”
CALM is currently taking 4,000 calls a month at its helpline, but they could and would take more if resources allowed. According to the Office of National Statistics, more men under 50 die from suicide than from road deaths, coronary heart disease or liver disease and Jane suspects that the figure may be even greater.
“We have a problem in this country with the way suicides are recorded,” she says. “Coroners tend to return narrative or undetermined verdicts because the burden of proof is stacked against suicide. You can have someone who has left a note, who has jumped from a cliff and who was feeling desperately sad at the time and yet still their death is not recorded as suicide. The figures are unreliable and they are not done in real time, so for example the latest lot of statistics only go up to 2012.”
However, what the figures do show is a continued and widening gender divide.
In 1981, 2,466 women in the UK took their own lives. Three decades later, the figure had almost halved to 1,391. A combination of social and political changes were cited as a reason for the drop, but the figures for men have not followed the same pattern. In 1981, 4,129 men in the UK took their own lives. Fast forward 30 years and the number had risen to 4,590.
“I’d like to say we are getting better at dealing with suicide, but I don’t think we are,” says Powell. “If I had a bottomless pit of money I would overhaul the entire mental health service. I would make it so that when anyone walked into their doctors surgery, no matter how nicely spoken or well-dressed they were, and said they were feeling suicidal they were taken seriously.
“We know that when men are depressed they are very good at self-medicating whether that be through drink or drugs. However, too often they are sent away and told to deal with their alcohol problem before they can access help for depression. Addiction is a symptom of the depression and the two have to be treated together.”
For those who can’t find a way through, suicide can seem like the only escape from the pain. It was a feeling summed up by one of the many tributes to Williams. Making reference to his show-stealing turn in the Disney animation Aladdin, The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, took to Twitter. The message said simply, ‘Genie, you are free’.