Comedy and Suicide

Posted on 12 August 2014

Many of us are saddened by the passing of comedian Robin Williams. People are expressing bewilderment as to why someone who was so rich, famous, and brought so much joy into people’s lives would want to kill himself. Some just chalk it up to “the sad clown” stereotype. I cannot know why Robin Williams made this choice. People have many reasons why they choose to take their own life rather than go on, some of them legitimate.

Humor author Terry Pratchett is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He is contending with greater and greater memory loss and mood swings. As such he is advocating and preparing himself for assisted suicide. I’m sure anyone who has had to euthanise a pet because of that family member’s suffering, wonders about why it is considered the loving thing to do in one case, but not the other.

People who say you shouldn’t commit suicide because it is “wrong”, because it will cause others pain, aren’t really helping those who are in the throes of suffering. It’s unhelpful to tell someone that they should have no control over their life, because it might make you cry. It’s understandable if you love someone that you don’t want to let them go, but whether it is in a relationship or someone who has lost brain function, it is not your choice whether or not they stay.

People who are in the arts have a number of reasons why they might fall into suicidal depression. Predominantly these are based on our culture’s intense worship of money and status.

If you choose to go into the arts, frequently family members will not understand. They will either see it as a step down in your status and thereby theirs by association, or that you are trying to one up them through fame. Try living in a situation where your family has cut you off because they are unwilling to accept your adult choices. That’s sufficient to put many people into a suicidal frame of mind. Now add to that not having sufficient money as a struggling artist to have children of your own.

And if you think that’s rough, add the fact that if you stick with your art then eventually your friends with “regular” jobs will stop communicating with you when they hit their 30s, because they only have time to mix with the friends they make at work or through their children’s school. The isolation can be extreme.

Of course those who go into the arts often do so because they were already outsiders for one reason or another when they were growing up.

If you do achieve some sort of fame or fortune, some families will then “forgive” you. But then you know their judgement has less to do with who you are and more to do with your social standing. You will have people who want to be your friends in hopes of improving their own situation, not because of who you are. There’s a reason why famous people tend to hang out with other famous people, and it’s not always to exclude you. Sometimes it’s to protect their own emotional lives. Of course even other famous people can continue to be social climbers, shallow, and lost in their own publicity. More isolation.

Right now we simply do not have enough jobs to employ all human beings on this planet. People who cannot find work are treated harshly. We have people judging and bullying the unemployed because they are seen as deserving of their suffering. Those of us in the arts have to regularly deal with unemployment. The only way to get skilled up enough to compete for the small number of arts dollars is finding time to do our art. Some of us have gone into incredible debt pinning our hopes on an arts job, paying a university to help us get one. We are then seen as the enemy: because we often challenge social norms, because we are supposedly getting to do what we love when others suffer in boring brutal jobs, because we are often poor.

Simply asking someone “how are you doing” can help a little, provided you are genuinely ready to respond to a real answer. If you aren’t prepared, it will make things worse. I know individuals who have had a child die and people becoming angry with them for still grieving after a few weeks. Sending “hugs” on Facebook is nice, but sometimes people need a real human in real time listening to their problems. Keeping all the frustrations and suffering in your head, because no one has time and no one understands, is crazy making. It’s okay if you can’t fix these people, but don’t make it worse by offering half-assed or inappropriate help and then getting huffy when that sort of help is rejected.

Telling an arts person that their suffering is “all in their head” when they are unable to pay for food speaks of a callous personality. Giving an arts person anti-depressants, so they can better live with being underappreciated, under-paid, and alone, is a form of cruelty. The arts are not an optional extra, they are an important part of our well-being as individuals and as a culture. Those people who do things that help us to survive our own jobs deserve a lot more support and respect. Of course the clown is sad, if you punish her for being happy because you aren’t. But if you give the clown a chance, he might make your life a little brighter.

Peace and kindness,


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