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What Robin Williams Had in Common with 16 Million Fans

What Robin Williams Had in Common with 16 Million Fans

The news that Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide earlier this week shocked us. He is among the nearly 40,000 people who complete suicide each year nationwide.1 This translates to a suicide every 13.3 seconds. Almost 79% of suicide deaths are men. Overall, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United State, higher than murders.

Even though Williams was very public about the fact that he experienced depression, and in the past had been a cocaine and alcohol abuser, most of us had a hard time reconciling our notion of depression with the exuberant—almost manic—comic energy he brought to stage or screen. How could someone so energetic and high-spirited suffer from debilitating levels of depression?

Within hours of his death, many blogs and other commentary appeared, exposing misconceptions about suicide as being selfish or citing research connecting creativity and mental health struggles. However, what really struck me was how Robin Williams exemplified the fact that most people with severe mental illness can be and usually are high functioning in our society. They contribute tremendously to the greater good. Think of how many laughs you enjoyed because of Robin Williams’ genius.

Robin Williams was among the 16 million adults in the U.S. who had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. These are people who have experienced at least two weeks with either a depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure, and a loss of functioning in multiple other areas, such as problems with sleeping, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image. Mood disorders, including depression, are the third most common reason for hospitalization.

Even though he struggled with serious depression, Williams was like so many others who experience depression: he continued to go to work, to be a devoted family man, to contribute to great causes, to have close friends and relationships, and to be important to his community (in his case, that community includes all of us who loved his television appearances, movies, plays, and comedy).

Williams is reported to have been totally reliable on the set—always ready to work and one of the first to arrive each day. One senior movie agent described him as being “almost impossibly high functioning.” He appeared in over 40 films, a Broadway play and television shows, and performed comic stand-up, to name just a few projections of his gift at playing varied roles. His Oscar nominations and win were testimony to his talent.

Williams’ life challenges stereotypes and misconceptions that many have about people with serious depression. I find myself admiring his strength and resilience as he continued to share his genius with the world while dealing with depression. It is time for us to put aside stigma and to celebrate the tremendous contributions that people living with depression make in our work places, in our families, in our communities, and in our lives.

1. Del Vecchio, Paolo, “Doing More to Save Lives,” SAMHSA blog, 8/12/14.

For more resources and help, visit or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-8255 or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Update: Kathy Greenlee and Pamela S. Hyde share additional insights on the SAMHSA blog, 8/27/14, "Robin Williams: Raising Awareness About Depression." 

MeHAF provides support for Behavioral Health Homes and Integrated Care projects to better integrate mental health and substance abuse services with primary care. This integration of care expands access to treatment that can improve mental health.

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