Robin Williams’ Suicide: Signals Missed, Lessons Learned

Robin Williams battled demons his entire life. But one last setback triggered spiraling depression.
Robin Williams battled demons his entire life. But one last setback triggered spiraling depression.

Robin Williams was eating in a New York City Greek restaurant when I happened to bump into him. In his typical high-energy, seemingly casual way, he said to me, “Oh, Dr. Judy, I need a psychologist.”

“Call me anytime,” I quipped back in a matching tone.

Half of me thought he was just jokingly relating to me by what I do, but the other half thought he was being truthful, given what I knew about his history of emotional issues.

A Trio of Problems

Addiction, depression and a physical disease could certainly add up to desperation leading to drastic action like suicide. A performer like Williams who banked on his fluid speech and movements might be pushed to be fatalistic when facing such a diagnosis, even though actor Michael J. Fox has famously prevailed with the disease. The mode chosen for committing suicide is always significant. While use of pharmacological agents is the most common method of attempting suicide, hanging is actually the most successful. From a psychoanalytic point of view, Williams choice to hang himself and cut off his breath with his belt can be interpreted as cutting off his speech as symbolic of the very source of his talent. This is consistent with what Williams said in a 2009 People magazine article that in his childhood “The ideal child was seen, not heard.” Even the most publicly successful performer can still carry a hurt little child inside. For Williams, as for so many other people, painful experiences growing up “short, shy, chubby and lonely” (his self-description) can always lie just beneath the surface and erupt when fears and failures pile up.

I never heard from him, and now, after news of his tragic suicide, I’m painfully aware of how serious his remark was. All too often a cry for help is masked, or unheeded.

Williams was recently “battling severe depression,” according to his publicist

Williams’ wife later confirmed the source “anxiety” and early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.” Though she insisted he was now sober, Williams had a long history of addiction, from which the addict is always in recovery.

In her statement, she made a plea for troubled souls to seek help.

“It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”

Clearly Williams was not getting enough help, given a likely all-too-brief stay in the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center this past summer and reports that he was receiving treatment lately.

Two Images of Williams’ Brilliance

Williams, in a television interview on “Inside the Actors Studio” with host James Lipton, jumped up from his chair to face the audience, twisting a pink pashmina scarf in many positions–over his shoulders, around his head, straddling his hips – using the one prop to transform into a multiple of characters and situations. The second is from the film “Dead Poets Society,” when Williams’ English teacher character entreats his young students to stand on their desks to free themselves and see the world from a new perspective. Both images inspired techniques that I use in my classes at Columbia University Teachers College and in many workshops I conduct around the world.

Despite marveling at Williams’ lightning ad-libbing, the psychologist side of me always worried that his over-the-top energy belied a darker side and a serious underlying condition.

Williams’ stream of consciousness and free association were intrinsic to his comic genius. But such over-the-top talk is also symptomatic of cocaine use, to which Williams admitted in the 1980s.

In the psychology profession, there is another possibility, where symptoms of “pressured speech” and “word salad” indicate a manic state. When combined with reported depressive bouts, the condition is called bipolar.

The term “bipolar” — which in recent years replaced the diagnostic term “manic depression” — is characterized by severe highs and lows and disabling seesaw swings of moods, energy and activity.

Good Will Hunting

In playing a psychiatrist in the film “Good Will Hunting,” Williams advises Matt Damon’s troubled character to taste love, happiness and life instead of using defense mechanisms. He calls the Will Hunting character a “genius,” empathizes that “no one could possibly understand the depths of you,” and advises him to talk about himself and who he really is. The celluloid Williams could have been talking about himself. If the real life, had Williams taken this wisdom to heart, he might be still alive with us today. Williams won a best supporting actor Oscar for the role.

Psychological studies show that comedians often use humor to cover underlying despair. One survey of 532 comedians found they have a much lower ability than ordinary people to focus and control their moods and a much higher rate of impulsive and unusual experiences.

British researchers attributed these results to creative talent, but also associated them with personality conditions.

Celebrities, such as Britney Spears, have notoriously been suspected to suffer from bipolar disorder.

Others have admitted their condition, like Carrie Fisher, the famed Princess Leia of “Star Wars” and Catherine Zeta-Jones, well known for her role in “The Mask of Zorro” and as the wife of Michael Douglas.

Actress Patty Duke, who famously portrayed Helen Keller in the film “The Miracle Worker,” was the first celebrity to go public with her bipolar disorder in 1987. She wrote her autobiography, “Call Me Anna” about her struggle with drinking, drugs, manic depression and attempting suicide in her youth.

Lessons from Williams’ Tragic Choice

  • Lesson One: No one knows the private demons a sufferer faces. We may see success, but he or she faces life every day that can be filled with private disappointments. Another lessons is not to notice and heed signs of others’ distress – in work and love.
  • Lesson Two: Cherish life.
  • Lesson Three: Reach out in moments of despair. There is always hope and there are always new moments to value.
  • Lesson Four: Admittedly, the truly depressed have a hard time seeing or believing this.

Her second book, A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depression Illness, was published in 1992.

More than 5 million “real” people are estimated to similarly suffer from bipolar disorder.

Just this past week, broadcasting journalist Jane Pauley, who greeted millions of viewers with charm and cheer every morning for years on NBC’s “Today” show, was interviewed at the opening ceremony of the American Psychological Association.

Thousands of psychologists, including me, gathered for the annual professional convention were riveted to her honest and brave account of her bipolar condition and how she is ever mindful, watching her moods and taking her medication.

She tells her story in her just-published memoir, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue.

Like Pauley, people with bipolar disorder can lead productive lives — with treatment.

An effective ongoing “maintenance” plan includes a combination of “talk therapy” and medication to stabilize moods and behavior. It’s the approach Jane Pauley shared that she uses successfully.

If only Robin Williams could have done the same.

Judy Kuriansky
Judy Kuriansky

Judy Kuriansky is a New York clinical psychologist on the faculty at Columbia University Teachers College and Chair of the Psychology Coalition of NGOs at the United Nations. A well-known relationship counselor, frequent guest commentator on HLN’s Showbiz Tonight, and member of the iconic Friars Club, she has also been a mental-health first responder after disasters worldwide.

A pioneer of radio call-in advice talk and popular media personality for years, her many books include The Complete Idiots Guide to a Healthy Relationship and Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet.

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