The Pain Behind the Mask

Health & Fitness / Stories / October 1, 2014

Nancy Hoey, M.Ed., L.P.C., Grace Counseling Center LLC

By Nancy Hoey – 

I received a text from my daughter while she was away visiting cousins in St. Louis. It read “Mom! Mrs. Doubtfire died today!” She had just learned that Robin Williams, the actor who played Mrs. Doubtfire in one of our favorite family films, had taken his own life.

Recent depression statistics show that 9.1 percent of Americans meet criteria for depression with 4.1 percent of those diagnosed with major depression ( 2013). In addition, suicide rates are climbing. In 2010 the number of deaths by suicide surpassed fatal car crashes and among the highest risk group for suicide are middle aged men and women.

Like Williams, those suffering from depression often mask their pain from the world. Partly because this disease is still misunderstood and a taboo topic, their illness alienates them from people around them. Most of us have a tendency to look at others and think “That person/couple/family looks so perfect, they probably don’t have any problems.” But just as Robin Williams’ genius humor concealed his turmoil from most of the world, people hide their suffering in a variety of ways.

Every one of us wears a mask at times. Our masks are the decorated versions of ourselves; our personality that covers the way we are truly feeling. We are all human beings and we all experience emotions. People develop masks over time due to life experiences, personalities and the way they are taught by parents or caregivers to express or repress emotions.

An art therapy technique that explores an individual’s outside persona versus the authentic self is called the mask exercise. It can be a valuable tool for self-expression,
inner-growth, and healing. Using a cardboard face, decorate the outside with words and illustrations to describe the face you show the world. On the inside of the mask, decorate the part that you keep hidden. Now take a look at both sides of the mask and think about these questions:

• What does this mask mean?

• When do you need to wear it?

• Why do you have to wear it?

• How does your mask protect you?

• How does your mask harm you?

• What is your fear if the mask is removed?

• Is there anyone in your life that you show your true feelings to?

• How does your mask prevent you from being your authentic self?

Robin William’s tragic death validated the struggle that so many people with depression endure. What looks one way on the outside may be completely different from what is going on inside. With his many contributions to television and films, Williams provided us with periods of comic relief. Through his death, he continues to share himself with the world – this time teaching us the depths of darkness people can reach, a place so miserable they truly believe everyone will be better off without them. Yet suicide leaves loved ones with questions that will never be answered as well as the guilt that they could have done more. His daughter Zelda affirmed this when she said “I will never understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay.”

If we begin to talk openly about depression, perhaps more and more people will gain an understanding of this chemical imbalance and those masking their pain will be more willing to come forward for help. Next time you catch yourself assuming something about another because of what they look like, remember the decorated persona that hid Williams’ pain. If you know of someone experiencing depression, rather than ignore the topic because it makes you uncomfortable, ask them if there’s anything you can do to help. Your support and caring could make a difference.

For more information about suicide and depression, visit the

Nancy Hoey, M.Ed., L.P.C. uses Gottman Method Couples Therapy in her work as a couples counselor.  She completed her graduate training at the University of Missouri – Columbia and has specialized training in adolescent therapy, anxiety, depression, sexual issues, couples therapy and trauma.  She is the owner of Grace Counseling in Jefferson City.

Alvin Leifeste

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