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When the Laughter Stops

The death of Robin Williams emphasizes the need to work on understanding depression -- and the value of comedy
Robin Williams in 2011 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Eva Rinaldi CC BY-SA)
Robin Williams in 2011 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Eva Rinaldi CC BY-SA)

I did not personally know Robin Williams. I have never seen him in a live performance. Yet when I read about his death today, apparently from suicide, I cried. In every generation, human beings seem to have an endless capacity to hate and kill. Millions die from hunger and war and disease every day, and we turn a blind eye. So why should the death of a single person matter, especially when it is not someone that I personally knew or am related to.

The professional medical literature contains many high-quality studies on the power of laughter. It seems that laughter is not a freak outcome of evolution but rather a critical physiological safety mechanism for dealing with sadness and stress. I remember listening to a Holocaust survivor describe how a number of Jews in the Auschwitz death camp, would tell jokes to each other. And they would laugh. It is literally unfathomable how people in such a horrific reality could muster the energy to laugh. But clearly, their laughter did help to pass a few moments with slightly less pain.

Laughter can be a powerful treatment for those suffering from deep sadness and even severe depression. There is no question that even evoking a smile from someone who is severely depressed, is considered a huge accomplishment. I do not think it is a coincidence that Robin Williams portrayed the physician “Patch” Adams in one of his movies. Dr. Adams was a man who very much understood that antibiotics treat a disease, but laughter heals the soul.

Mr. Williams was known as a person who suffered from depression. Depression is a disease that has garnered great attention in the world of medical technology. With sufficient sensor information, it would be possible to track the decrease in physical activity that often accompanies depression. Computers can analyze the text that a person types in order to spot signs of depression [and these signs can be very subtle]. Recent advances in computer vision allow for the identification of facial signs that are consistent with a saddened mood. In other words, a computer can tell if a person is depressed just by “looking” at him or her.

I suspect that within the next few years, there will be a suite of tools from various companies all designed to spot various psychiatric diseases based on behavior and facial expressions and any form of interaction with others. And of course, these various tools will inform the appropriate family, friends and caregivers in the event that the individual is displaying signs of suicidal or other dangerous behavior. The idea is not to wait until the person has already overdosed to raise an alarm. Rather, the point is to catch the very first signs of such behavior before any attempt at suicide is made.

I read a number of posts questioning how someone who appeared so happy and had so much to live for could even consider taking his own life. I am not a psychologist and would not pretend to be able to understand and more so explain how such a dichotomy is possible. But many, including myself, have wondered if any person could handle the stream of thoughts that must have been running through Mr. Williams mind every second. One only needed to see him perform once, to be amazed at the endless energy and well of comedy that he constantly drew from. What happens to such a mind when it is 2 o’clock in the morning and there is no audience? How does the brain deal with so much activity when it is supposed to be resting.

Once again I wonder if a technological solution could help in such situations. Having a “virtual friend” available 24 hours a day might in fact help many people who desperately need to share their emotions and thoughts at inconvenient times for other humans. Who knows, perhaps if Mr. Williams had been able to perform for his virtual friend, he would not have felt as alone or sad as he clearly did. I can say that having a friend is also a clinically recognized way of reducing the risk of suicide. I do not know how many friends Mr. Williams had. All I’m saying is that a computer might be able to offer the kind of friendly interaction that a person would need at a time of despair.

On a personal note, I have often scanned through YouTube for video clips of Mr. Williams’ performances when I would be having a bad day. His version of the origins of golf is most likely from the most humorous pieces of comedy ever made. The language is a bit harsh [as a warning to anyone who is sensitive to this issue]. But I still find myself returning to this video time and time again, whenever I need to laugh. So once again, a technology like YouTube that we take so much for granted at this point, definitely can play a very positive role for anyone who needs a “pick me up”.

When a genius dies, you cannot help but wonder what more he or she would have created had they had more time on this world. I don’t think anyone questions that Mr. Williams could personally have continued to make people laugh for many more decades. To be honest, this is really what people mourn – the loss of that safety net that would somehow always manage to find humor in any situation. The world without Mr. Williams is definitely colder and sadder. Personally, I think I will load up YouTube and watch some of his videos to help me, selfishly, feel better.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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