Fábregas: Robin Williams' suicide brings depression to forefront

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Something fascinating happened soon after the world found out Robin Williams died.

As if on cue, fans and celebrities jumped on social media sites to share their grief and tell us how heartbroken they were.

Some listed their favorite Williams movies. Others wrote about not being able to stop crying or how this was the “saddest thing ever.”

There was so much public display of sadness that I wondered: Is public mourning a thing? I ask because I am just as guilty, having jumped on Twitter to express my shock and disbelief.

But are we genuinely “sad” about the death of a person we haven't met? Is this the same kind of sadness we feel when one of our parents or a close friend dies? Why the sudden stream of emotions?

While I'm a huge Williams fan, the cynic in me couldn't help but theorize that feelings as we once knew them have been altered by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We easily and willingly tell everyone who will listen that we are sad, angry, happy or frustrated.

The people who say they are “devastated” about Williams' death are the same people who, minutes later, post a photo of the Ultimate Red Velvet Cheesecake they're downing at Cheesecake Factory.

Glen Getz, a neuropsychologist at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side, told me that expressing feelings on social media can be a productive part of the grieving process.

“It's a way of reaching out to everybody,” he said. “For some, it's cathartic. It's a way they can empathize and show their sympathy. It connects people.”

He explained that we're “products of the here and now,” which means that we're so focused on the present that it won't be long before we replace our grief with the next tragedy.

Death, it turns out, is a profitable business. Soon after the news broke about Williams' death, my inbox was flooded with emails from public relations folks pitching experts to discuss depression.

It shouldn't require the death of a celebrity, one as talented and brilliant as Williams was, to have frank discussions about depression. Yet that's what happened — the only positive thing to come out of the Williams tragedy.

Depression is a biochemical disease that is wildly misunderstood and affects rich and poor alike. It is not the same as feeling down or having the Monday blues. It needs to be treated with medications that often lead to frustrating side effects.

My guess is that we don't take it seriously because, unlike cancer or Alzheimer's, it isn't outwardly perceptible and dramatic. There's no chemotherapy and loss of hair. There are no spaghetti dinners and ice bucket challenges to raise money for people with depression.

Could it be that we brush aside important issues, mental illness included, because we're consumed with trivial matters we can post to Facebook? We're busy letting everyone know we had a great workout or just returned from a dream vacation in Myrtle Beach or the Outer Banks.

We're too busy sharing our “feelings,” (“bought a new phone” or “so sick of traffic on the parkway”) and mistake depression for a character flaw. We pay no attention until it's time to be cool and tell the world that we're “sad.”

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor.

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