Rick Martin: When I heard the news about Robin Williams' death I felt heartbroken
Martin: It brought back memories of my own battle with depression as a youth
He says depression is overwhelming, but it can be overcome - it takes a village
Martin: Don't be afraid to share your feelings, ask for help and reach out for support
Editor’s Note: Rick Martin is a Senior News Editor for the Affiliate Content Center at CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Monday night’s tribute to Robin Williams at the Emmy Awards was moving and powerful and funny, like the man himself.
When I first heard the news about Williams’ apparent suicide, like millions of his fans, I felt heartbroken. He was so brave, talented, funny and brilliant. What a loss of a great actor and a great man.
In days that followed, I learned that Williams had been battling severe depression. This brought back memories of my own battle with depression many years ago when I was a teenager. I never told anyone about it because I was terrified that I would be judged.
But the time has come for me to share this with my family, friends and the world. Earlier this year when I read that six students from a high school in Virginia committed suicide during a three-year period, my eyes welled with tears and I felt incredibly sad. I knew I could not remain silent anymore. I didn’t want to read about another student taking his own life who had to deal with the same intense, complicated challenges that I dealt with.
I called the school district and was invited to speak at its Teen Suicide Prevention Summit. I felt humbled and honored, and scared at the same time. After speaking at the summit, guests of all ages lined the aisle to tell me how my message gave them hope.
In essence, what I shared in that speech was that depression can be overcome, but it takes a village. You never know what sharing your concern may mean to someone in pain. My pastor recently told me I have become a living testimony of how a support network can help others find rest in the midst of storm.
Living life as a husband, a father and a journalist assigned to overnight shifts is not easy. Even the best of us will be tested to their limits. Some days, I don’t know if I’m getting it right at all.
Those who suffer depression have it tough. I would like to share how I found hope in the midst of my storm. I created a system for myself to remain focused, LASER focused, on staying free from storm.
For young people who face storms of their own, here’s my story.
I was that kid, in the midst of storm. I am the son of proud immigrant parents who drilled into me a sense of duty to repay the opportunity afforded me. With American “success” comes the responsibility to accept the full weight of their dreams of a better life for their children. I thank my parents for setting standards that stay with me to this day.
My parents moved us to a nice D.C. suburban neighborhood surrounded by opportunity, but it was isolating. At age 16, I fell into a deep and dark emotional hole. The stress of school, sports and assimilation became too much to bear. I felt guilty for wanting to abandon my cultural heritage. I stopped feeling loved. I quit caring. I would later learn that this despair I felt was actually a suffering from depression. But at the time, I only knew that I was in unimaginable darkness and loneliness, even if I were surrounded by people.
Depression: Help is available
- CNN has put together a collection of resources that may be helpful if you are struggling with depression. You can find it at CNN.com/Impact
One day after school, I was at home babysitting my napping, 7-year-old sister. I became overwhelmed with anxiety. Tears rolled down my face. I was scared, but didn’t know what I would do. I picked up the phone and called a classmate named Lori Lee. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I know I was at my end. She listened intently. After we hung up, she called a teacher, Mrs. Jo Henry, in my high school and within minutes Jo appeared on my doorstep. Suddenly, I was not alone.
She called my parents, and suddenly I was surrounded by a village. A village that gave me the courage not to hide from them my pain.
I held on to that village and never looked back. I used those experiences to form a list of guiding principles that I have honed through life that I use to weather those everyday storms of life. I call it the LASER system. LASER is an acronym for Listen, Assess, Support, Execute and Respond. It’s designed to provide a systematic, positive and consistent approach to help individuals endure challenges and perform through stress.
In my role at CNN as a Senior News Editor, I help decide what gets covered. Unfortunately, all too frequently, I cover stories of youngsters, professional athletes and personalities who didn’t find a way out of despair and die tragically. Robin Williams, sadly, is one of many on the list.
The common thread we often learn in those cases is that there was no village. There was no network. There was no one there to Listen and Act, to show them that life is full of possibilities and promise, and there are people who love them. That they have value.
I write to reach those who find themselves slipping, and to urge those around them to help. You can manage through crisis. How?
Listen (intently to when someone is in trouble)
Assess (what the problem could be)
Support (the person to live and dream)
Execute (a plan to get help)
Respond (if initial actions don’t help)
The first letter in each of the words just mentioned forms the word laser, like a beam of light that can help you in the dark.
I was on the verge of being defeated more times than I care to count. At each challenge, I found a way out of the storm with the village. I was armed with a LASER focus that in life I am not alone, that storms come and go.
Can you be a part of a village to someone? Can you be their haven from storms? The difference begins with you. Each and every one of you.
To anyone who might be struggling – you’re not alone. Struggle is natural. It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to hurt. What’s not OK is keeping those feelings to yourself. It takes courage to share those feelings. Reach out to your village.
To those around someone who’s struggling, know that it took me 10 years to fully share with my school friend how her single, simple act of making a phone call to a caring teacher set a chain of events that changed the course of my life.
Who would have thought that that kid who struggled to succeed academically and socially then would be flourishing at arguably the most prestigious and influential media organization in the world?
I thank God every day that someone showed up with an umbrella in the midst of my storm, and gave me a haven, and that a village came to make me believe in my promise and my purpose, and that I can look in the mirror every day now with LASER focus, with hope, in spite of the storms, and use my principles to live and thrive.
My heart goes out to Robin Williams’ wife and family. For all those who are struggling with depression, don’t slip into the darkness, because it doesn’t have to be that way.