Dismissing a celebrity death

August 14, 2014

I'M HAVING some issues with how some people on the left addressed issues around suicide and mental health in the wake of Robin Williams's death.

Yes, there are issues in the world right now that are very important, such as the bombings in Gaza and Iraq, and another murder of a Black youth, Michael Brown, by the police in Ferguson, Mo. However, let's get at why, when a public figure like Robin Williams passes away, people in the U.S. are more likely to connect with his death than the atrocities here and around the world.

People connect with entertainers such as Williams, Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson because many sought refuge, whether they consciously knew it or not, in those performers' art while living with the daily hardships of capitalism. The work these public figures shared with the world helped people to escape and cope with worrying about paying bills or where their next meal would come from, or provided joy when it seemed there might not be any happiness around.

Williams' death provides a moment to actually talk about mental health and potentially not be shamed. I will be honest and out myself--a few months ago, I was diagnosed as being clinically depressed, and I have been in therapy for over a year. I've actually been in and out of therapy since I was a child, and I've been afraid that I will be seen as someone people should use kid gloves around if I mentioned my struggle with depression. Yes, even as an activist who has spent over 12 years of my life fighting for a better world, sometimes living under a system that is so repressive to my well-being and people who speak out can be too much to bear.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

I understand that some of the comments about "sheeple" come from people who want change in the world and are frustrated that there aren't enough people fighting back against oppression in the streets. It is key, however, that we have some real discussions about why are we in this current political space in this country.

Calling people names for talking about their memories of Robin Williams will not bring more people onto the streets to end oppression. Instead, such disparaging comments may alienate people further from the left. Moreover, referring to people as "sheep," without the potential to have independent thoughts or change their minds and grow politically, is incredibly condescending.

THE PASSING of Williams, Houston and others before them has proven to be one of the few times where we're able to start seeing any compassion around mental health issues and start having some frank discussions about how these issues affect our society. I would rather have some people start the work to understand and be supportive of someone dealing with mental issues than choose to not care.

Readers’ Views

SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

I understand the anger about working-class and poor people-of-color issues around mental health not being discussed widely as a society. However, this discussion is beginning, and it is our job as the left to take this moment when discussion around mental health is open and not rely on the mainstream media to tell our stories, but to highlight our struggles and fight back for the services we all deserve.

It is frustrating that the mainstream media actively ignores our stories around mental health, but we also have seen the power of social media and independent media to break stories that the mainstream media feels are a waste of time.

Some of the ways I've seen some people who identify as being liberal, progressive or radical talking about Robin Williams have been dismissive and disrespectful of the grieving process. If we want more people to talk and take action around mental health issues, police brutality, endless wars, etc., then we need to meet people where they are at, and turn frustration toward fighting an oppressive system--not take it out on some working people who are, in their own ways, grieving.

We can talk about atrocities in the world, respect that some are grieving a public figure, discuss why issues of suicide and mental health are so prominent in this society, and also discuss why the U.S. media would much rather talk about Williams' death than what's happening in Ferguson, Mo., Gaza or Iraq. In my opinion, capitalism stresses people out to the maximum, and no matter how much money one has, it will never bring real happiness. One can partake in entertainment and culture and still be willing to stand in solidarity and organize around the injustices of the world.

We all start from somewhere and become educated on struggles to end oppression in a multitude of ways--the patience others had with our political growth should be extended to others. We on the left have a responsibility to talk about these issues in a way that connects with others instead of acting like we know everything, because there is plenty of work to be done. Icing people out won't get us any closer to winning a better world.
Derron Thweatt, San Francisco

Further Reading

From the archives