Robin Williams and Depression

by Dr. Linda Johnston, Clinical Psychologist

We are all very saddened by the loss of this talented comedian, exceptionally intelligent and creative man, generous humanitarian, and contributor to so many of our lives. I write in order to attempt to answer a question I have been asked too many times in the past few weeks from clients who are experiencing or have experienced depression; namely “If Robin Williams can’t manage depression and kills himself, what makes me think I will be able to manage my depression?”

First, be cautious about what you read, about getting as much information as you can and about how statements are worded. From my own reading about his circumstances, it appears that Robin Williams had been experiencing a combination of depression, cocaine addiction and alcoholism for many years. Apparently he was clean and sober for almost twenty years but relapsed in the 2000’s. Nonetheless, it appears that he had quite recently received additional rehab treatment. Information is lacking about whether or not he was clean and sober around the time of his taking of his life. Questions are raised in the articles I have read concerning adequate treatment with medication and therapy. Articles hint at his not having been successful finding a medication that helped adequately and also the need for therapy. Although doctors who did not treat Robin comment about regretting that he had not tried such treatments as ECT and TSM (used for treatment resistant cases of depression), indicating that they feel he “could have been saved”, some articles do and others do not point out that there are serious predicable side effects (such as confusion and permanent memory loss for ECT) that would very likely have been rejected by someone requiring immediate, razor-sharp replies from a sharp and focussed intellect.

Then there appear to have been serious medical and personal factors at work as well. Having received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease no doubt had a very serious negative and depressive effect for such an energetic, intelligent, and creative man. In addition, his career appears to have begun to decline with the failure of his recent return to TV and cancellation of that series as well as a lack of leading movie roles.

So the answer, or question for people experiencing depression would be how many of these plural domains in your life are also being impacted to such a serious extent? Depression superimposed on a dual addiction, superimposed on a degenerative disease for which there is no cure, superimposed on a decline or disappearance of your career and your public persona. When depression co-exists with this number of factors, it is extremely important to have ALL of the challenges addressed. Fortunately, few of us have to deal with as many simultaneous challenges as did this dear and unfortunate man, and for those who do, please seek help immediately.

 Additionally, I must add my concern about the ongoing difficulty our first world culture continues to have about fully recognizing and positively dealing with mental health issues; it is very sad that even in Hollywood, where more and more admissions of mental illness are documented, a star has to end their life possibly in part from shame and hopelessness and possibly from lack of full support, encouragement and acknowledgment of the reality of their challenges.