To say the loss of Robin Williams to suicide is tragic is a gross understatement. Many of us grew up with Mork & Mindy on television and, over the decades, witnessed the incredibly talented actor and comedian reach new heights in films ranging from Good Morning, Vietnam to Good Will Hunting. For many, there exists a sense of knowing Mr. Williams, almost on a personal level, as if his persona was woven into the very fabric of our entertainment world across the span of more than 35 years.
It feels very personal, this loss. It has been revealed that Williams was undergoing treatment for severe depression at the time of his death, and while his wife said after his death that he was sober at the time of his passing, he had struggled with addiction for much of his life. It was also revealed after his death that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.
No one knows, exactly, how much of a factor depression was in Williams’ decision to end his life. It’s fair to assume it played a role, though, as it often does when suicide occurs. Although it affects different people in different ways, depression is a treatable condition. With competent, compassionate mental health care, an individual who is motivated to recover likely will. Likewise, an individual who struggles with addiction can stay sober with much work and determination.
These challenges are thought to be partially biologically based due to genetics (and, for many women, reproductive hormonal life events can result in depression/anxiety) and may also be influenced by environmental factors (for example, unresolved or continuous stress, trauma, or grief/loss). The confluence of biology and environment can trigger a crashing of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Each individual has his or her own line of vulnerability.
It is so very sad that Williams was so low he couldn’t emerge from the abyss he was mired in. And yet it is understandable. For many, depression is so insidious that it creeps up on them, and before any family members know what hit their loved one, the individual has hit a wall. For some individuals, depression can be likened to being stuck behind a Plexiglas barrier while watching the world move about in slow motion. I suspect this was the case with our beloved Robin. Factor in any substance use to numb the pain of depression and you have the recipe for not only dropping serotonin levels, but tragedy as well.
What can you do if you or someone you love appears to be slogging through depression?
- Seek help immediately. If you or someone you love threatens suicide, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
- Receive psychotherapy with a skilled, compassionate therapist.
- Be open to the possibility of medication management to restore serotonin levels in circumstances where suicidal ideation is present.
- Consider integrative interventions, including increasing exercise, good nutrition, good sleep hygiene, yoga, meditation, and journaling.
- Rule out an underlying medical condition (thyroid issues, substance use, etc.). Get medical attention, if needed.
- Increase social supports; do not isolate.
I want to say it again: depression is treatable. Depression may resolve with competent, informed care (psychotherapy, social supports, improved self-care, and in some cases medication). It need not be a life sentence. It is never too late to reach out. Get help. Let go of the stigma.
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