​Robin Williams’ death sheds light on comedians who struggle with mental illness

The sad news of Robin Williams’ passing this week (Aug. 11) has opened up the conversation about mental illness once more.

All too often, people remain quiet about their suffering, but some comedians have taken an alternate approach to therapy: publicly talking about their struggles.

Laugh Factory comedy bar pays tribute to Robin Williams © Getty

Woody Allen once told Emma Brockes at The Guardian, “I just work from film to film and I'm almost burning on a low flame of depression. You know? It's not the kind of depression that sends you to use drugs or medicine. But, you know, I don't really care if people don't like a film of mine very much, and I don't really get much pleasure if the film is successful."

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British comedian Catherine Tate suffered postnatal depression in 2004 and it lingered for years. She told The Guardian that she would talk about it all the time, but in some ways she wished she hadn’t. “That’s so much the image of the crying clown. Postnatal depression is almost glamourized when people in the public eye talk about it.” While she may have second thoughts about vocalizing her struggle, it remains an effort that helped see her through.

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Suicidal thoughts have plagued Louie star Louis C.K., who has also been vocal about his chronic depression. For this, he says he has a “70 Per Cent Rule” for staying balanced. He explained to GQ that this means being rooted in the idea that “everything is amazing and nobody is happy."

An active voice on matters of mental health in present day comedy is the stand-up comic Rob Delaney. His post, titled ‘On Depression & Getting Help,’ illustrates his personal battle - one that he also documents in his book, Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

The 37-year-old comedian writes, “My mind played one thought over and over, which was ‘Kill yourself.’ It was also accompanied by a constant, thrumming pain that I felt through my whole body.” Eventually Rob found the right dose of anti-depressants to keep his depression at bay.

More: Robin Williams' suicide confirmed by coroner

While some comics undergo a meteoric rise to stardom and are unable to face their depression head-on, others fall prey to mental illness while trying to rise the ranks. In 2005, stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg died of a drug overdose after years of discussing his depression.

“I’ve really been in my head this last week," he said on his podcast before his death. "Every time I think I’m out of the woods with my depression and my self-obsession, I manage to backslide, and then that makes me even more depressed.”

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The list goes on and on, from rising voices to A-list stars. Other comedians who have been vocal about their struggles with mental illness include Ellen Degeneres, Sarah Silverman, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, David Letterman and Patton Oswalt.

Sometimes the most difficult thing to do in a situation where a lack of mental health is a reality is to discuss it. There’s sometimes fear of seeming weak to other people or embarrassed that the world hasn’t dealt you the proper hand. But what these comedians show is that this is a human condition – not an abnormal or celebrity one – and it merits a dialogue.

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