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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, Depression & Suicide.

  I had an affinity for Robin Williams. Nearly everyone I know respected him as an actor and enjoyed at least several of his films. It's amazing how we can feel a connection to someone we have never met. It's an abstract relationship, but nevertheless an important one. Movies are a primary form of entertainment that provide countless inside jokes among our friends, help us articulate our experiences to others, and offer us comic relief from our stress. I grew up with Robin Williams. He was one tier above Steve Martin in wit and improvisation, and no one could deliver dialogue as effectively and in such a broad range: from cracking hilarious jokes to conveying sincerity and concern in the blink of an eye.

     He played the role of a therapist perfectly well in Good Will Hunting, one of his few generally serious roles, but my favorite movie of his was The Dead Poets Society. Many of his films dealt with mental health issues, some directly (Shrink), and in others, it was a significant theme. I wondered if this was by design. Depression and suicide were specifically significant issues in several of his movies (including Dead Poets) and throughout the dialogue in most others, issues that he struggled with throughout his life. I wonder if he was trying to speak to his audience, past the veneer of the film's plot. So many of his movies are timeless and can be watched often without tire.

Robin Williams as therapist in Good Will Hunting.

     There was a rumor that he suffered from bipolar disorder. However, Williams announced through his agent that he suffered from clinical depression. The cause of his depression may have been related to years of cocaine abuse** as well as alcohol dependence, combined with the chronic stress of his career, especially early on; the brain's ability to fully bounce back from all of those stressors may sometimes be impossible. But he seemed like an over-achiever, a perfectionist, who put an enormous amount of pressure on himself to be the best that he could be at his job. There's no doubt that Robin Williams seized the days of his career; I could only hope that the hopelessness and helplessness he felt wasn't related to the empty promises of perfectionism.

"Carpe diem..." (Dead Poets Society)

     Improvisation was a primary medium for Robin Williams. It's also probably the most challenging to pull off, and succeed at it he did. I hope he understood how important he was to so many people. The sheer number of laughs he provided us with is probably greater than the placebo effects of all anti-depressants combined. But the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - a problem for the individual, but a true blessing for everyone else. Laughter may not be the best medicine after all, but it is very important. Depression and the act of suicide are much more complicated than "a chemical imbalance," or "genetics."

    For a giant like Robin Williams, it's important for the media to focus on his achievements and to focus on the living. Suicide contagion (the sometimes observable increase in suicides close to news reports of suicide) is a real factor for some people. It would be expected that if you suffer from depression, you might find yourself having an increase in feelings of emptiness, thoughts of hopelessness or helplessness, of suicidal thoughts during this time. The idea that someone like Robin Williams would hang himself is disturbing, especially when it seemed as though he had "conquered" his depression. Focus on yourself and don't compare his or anyone else's situation to yours. Depression and suicide are very complicated with many factors that contribute to their presence and management.

     One thing is for sure: alcohol or other drugs can be a primary factor in suicidal behavior. Many suicides, if not 50% or more, occur immediately before, during, or after intoxication with drugs or alcohol. In addition to seeking the support of a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in depression, avoiding drugs or alcohol during times of depression is as important as wearing a seat belt while driving. This is not to imply that Robin Williams had been drinking or using drugs when he committed suicide; it's unfortunately a good time to discuss it.

** Cocaine abuse in teens and 20s can lead to chronic depression, heart problems, and Parkinson's - Robin Williams had all three. It can damage the pacing process of the heart muscle, as well as the cells that produce dopamine in the brain (which may underlie certain symptoms of depression, like motivation, and Parkinson's).

Mental Health Advice Disclaimer: The information included in this post and blog are for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional mental health treatment or medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her mental health provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a mental health or medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this website does not create a therapist-patient relationship.

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