In the Wake of Robin Williams' Death, Will We Finally Start Taking Depression Seriously?
Robin Williams, who was found dead yesterday in his Tiburon, Calif., home, will be remembered for his rapid-fire delivery, his explosive, improvisational talent, and his surprising ability—showcased in his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting—to play character actor roles that had quieter, more introspective moments. But perhaps his death, which the county coroner suspects was “suicide due to asphyxia,” though no official ruling has been made yet, will also draw attention to the silent killer of depression.
Williams had been open about his struggles with substance abuse, and as mental health professionals often warn, addiction and depression are often partners in crime. According to an article in Psychology Today, the strongest predictor of suicide is alcoholism, and those with substance use disorders are about six times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. An alcoholic and a cocaine addict, Williams quit both vices after the death of his friend John Belushi in 1982 and remained sober for 20 years. But as he told Good Morning America in 2006, he relapsed back into alcohol abuse in 2003, and it took him three years to seek help. Just last month, Williams once again checked himself into the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Center City, Minn.
Looking back at Williams’ career, it is hard not to see glimpses of the pain hidden in the actor’s manic energy. His first major role was as Mork from Ork on the sitcom Mork & Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982. On that show he played an alien far from home, an outsider, and this would be a theme all through his lengthy résumé. From Russian defector Vladimir Ivonoff in Moscow on the Hudson to Parry, a homeless man tormented by his wife’s murder in The Fisher King, to Lance Clayton, the unpopular teacher who covers up his son’s autoerotic asphyxiation death in World’s Best Dad, Williams often played people who were marginalized or defined by their “otherness.” Look behind even the frenzied vocal pyrotechnics of his performance as Genie in Disney’s animated Aladdin, and you’ll see the heart of a man who isn’t free, who is slave to the lamp and others' wishes.
When he wasn’t giving sympathetic voice to outsiders, he was butting heads with power, playing iconoclasts who inspire, heal, or entertain with unorthodox methods. It’s easy to imagine roles such as Dead Poets Society’s rousing teacher John Keating and Good Morning Vietnam’s irreverent DJ Adrian Cronaur as appealing to a part of Williams that embraced mischief but also knew what it was like to be embattled. In 1998’s mawkish Patch Adams, he played another rebel, a former mental patient who wants to become doctor, though he rubs the medical establishment the wrong way with his humorous, humanist treatment style. In a parallel to real life, that character even contemplates killing himself in one scene.
The “sad clown” trope is one that is as old as theater. Perhaps we should no longer be surprised that those who bring us the most joy and are celebrated for their relentless mirth are often hiding real-life sadness and depression. The list of funny people who have taken their own lives (either by accidental overdose or on purpose) is long, from Richard Jeni and Freddy Prinze to Chris Farley and Williams’ old friend Belushi. Being funny obviously doesn’t protect one from anguish, or as fellow comedian Paul F. Tompkins wrote in his remembrance of Williams, “It’s a colossal shame that being a meaningful presence in the lives of many people, family, friends and strangers alike, isn't an impenetrable bulwark against despair.”
Comedians aren’t alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 100 people kill themselves every day in the United States, where suicide is the tenth leading cause of death. Williams' untimely end is another statistic to add to the pile, though perhaps because of his talent, which touched so many, his loss will help shine a light on mental health issues that are too often kept in the dark.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK.