The late Oscar-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams was among the most effective public figures at de-stigmatizing mental illness and addiction by baring his own lifelong struggles with both. Williams, whose confessional brand of stand-up comedy was a form of “sharing his story” by coating anguish with humor, was found dead at his home Aug. 11 of a suspected suicide.
“His openness with his addiction has helped a lot of people in recovery,” said Dr. David Sack, CEO at Elements Behavioral Health who for decades has treated people suffering from mental illness. “We can hope that the tragic death of Robin Williams will do for depression awareness what the death of Rock Hudson did for AIDS awareness.”
The beloved star broke into TV playing Mork from outer space and most recently starred in the cancelled CBS comedy “The Crazy Ones” as a recovering alcoholic advertising executive with a variety of mental health challenges, the latest in a career of characters with a core of pain and sensitivity to which audiences connected.
Williams won an Academy Award for his portrayal of a counselor in “Good Will Hunting,” though his role of a divorced dad who posed as an elderly nanny in “Mrs. Doubtfire” was a favorite with fans. Outside the Bay Area home where the movie was filmed, amid a mounting shrine of grief and fond remembrances, there appeared a framed photograph of Williams in “Mork & Mindy” with a message that read: “You taught me it was OK to feel like I was on the wrong planet.”
It was among thousands upon thousands of tributes in which friends and fans expressed empathy, sadness and gratitude for Williams’ gift in humanizing – some said normalizing – mental illness. His open and regular revelations about his addiction, in comedy specials and news interviews, endeared him to audiences.
So when Williams’ body was found Monday, the world seemed to know already that he’d recently been in treatment.
Over the years, Williams expressed an unvarnished picture of alcoholism and drug addiction, even while he acknowledged in several interviews that he had relapses. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported, Williams checked into an Oregon facility, acknowledging that he had relapsed after 20 years of sobriety. Given that addiction takes on average of six or seven quit tries, treatment experts say, relapse is expected, yet recovering abusers still feel shame about it.
“I actually quoted him in my first book because he brought humor to addiction in such an everyman sort of way,” said Dr. Jason Powers, chief medical officer at Right Step, a Texas treatment center and part of Elements Behavioral Health. “I think where Robin Williams was a model and his openness a positive contribution to the field was that any time a celebrity talks openly about their struggles – whether it’s addiction or mental illness like depression – without trying to capitalize on it, it definitely communicates something important. That, ‘Hey, addiction or depression doesn’t care if you have an Oscar, it doesn’t care if you make a lot of money, because at the end of the day, we are all human beings.’ ”
On a personal note, Dr. Powers added, “This human mourns at the loss of another who brought so much laughter and even at times depth to the world. Robin, you will be missed.”
Only one small sign of the profound depression Williams must have been suffering was the fact that he, as with so many others who take their lives, are lost in a darkness that squelches any recognition of the pain they will surely wreak upon their loved ones.
In a 2010 interview with the U.K.’s The Guardian, Williams, who had three grown children, covered a multitude of topics including the deaths of his friend and actor Christopher Reeve and his widow a year later. “I know their kids – they’re amazing – but to see them go through so much loss in one year – that’s tough.”
In that interview, Williams was described as having little interest in discussing the movie he was ostensibly promoting, “The Greatest Dad in the World,” in which his hateful teenage son accidentally dies and Williams fakes a suicide complete with note and journal that reforms the view of the teen into a more agreeable one. Instead, the author wrote that Williams spoke often in a “Zen” mindset, in a scattered way, but revealed he had given up alcohol and cocaine around the time his eldest child was born in 1983, but relapsed during a movie shoot in Alaska, triggering a period of several years before he got clean again. He blamed his relapse for the failure of his second marriage in 2008, which had lasted almost two decades, although by then he was sober.
“I was shameful,” he said. “I did stuff that caused disgust – that’s hard to recover from.”
The inability of one of the most beloved comics on the planet, a man President Barack Obama said “arrived in our lives as an alien – but ended up touching every element of the human spirit,” to overcome depression has prompted haunting questions from the public about mental illness.
“I was just thinking,” Ann Arbor area nurse Susan Humphries posted on Facebook, “that if Robin Williams can’t feel better with all of his wealth and access to top-notch healthcare, what are normal everyday old folks like us supposed to do? Drives home the point how serious depression really is.”
Along with expressions of sadness, many people mentioned his addiction and mental health demons, his candor about them obvious given they were so widely known. Many warned of the dangers of undiagnosed depression and the plunge into darkness it may bring to someone.
“When most people think about depression, they equate it with the way they feel when they get discouraged over a setback at work, a breakup in a relationship or a financial crisis,” Dr. Sack said. “For people living with depression, the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness assert themselves regardless of one’s achievement or the affection others feel toward them.
“Mr. Williams’ generous spirit and self-effacing nature put a face to the paradox that his ability to lift our spirits did not prevent his from sinking.”
Here are resources for anyone struggling with a mental illness:
24/7 Treatment Referral Line
SAMSA national helpline
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
24-Hour Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
#I Will Listen
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Help Line (800) 950-6264
Hope and help for relatives and friends of a problem drinker.