Robin Williams 1951-2014
My wife picked up the newspaper yesterday and broke into tears. She saw the sad news that Robin Williams, a beloved comedian, committed suicide.
I felt the same way. I remember Robin Williams in the TV comedy—“Mork and Mindy” which was a zany show about an alien from another planet. Williams was a genius and his career in the movies, television, and stage was launched. He was one of my favorite comedic actors.
Why are we so shocked? For one, it’s hard for us ordinary citizens to imagine that a successful, famous, talented, wealthy screen personality would commit sucide. He appeared to have everything that anyone would want. How often do we wonder—my life would be so much better if I had more money, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I was more successful, or I bet it’s great to be so famous! At the same time, we feel that we know these well-known adults. After all, we have seen and heard them in so many popular movies. How could he have been so desperate to take his own life? He always was so funny. The contrast between his stage personality and his apparent mental anguish makes it even harder to comprehend.
While we read that he had substance abuse problems, we never saw him drunk, stoned, or on a bender. We saw him working—on stage and on the screen. By all accounts, he was a hard working actor who always showed up for work. Needless to say, there is a story here that we didn’t see, didn’t know, that had to do with the dual disorders of chemical dependency and depression.
Let’s start with chemical dependency. This disease has touched most of us, either directly or indirectly. According to the CDC, there are over 100,000 deaths per year associated with alcohol abuse. The suicide rate of alcoholics is 58 times greater than non-alcoholics. Adults with chemical dependency have a much greater incidence of depression than the rest of the adult population. Alcohol, narcotics, and tranquilizers are all disinhibiting. They make it easier for an individual to act on their thoughts and impulses.
And as we all know, there are many “functioning” alcoholics who show up for work everyday. They don’t drink or use drugs on the job. But when they come home, they may drink until they pass out. Their co-workers don’t see the effects of their substance abuse.
What about depression? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 7% of the population will experience an episode of major depression during a 12 month period. In 2012, that added up to 16 million Americans. It’s a big number. Depression is a very painful medical condition—family and friends can’t see it and frequently don’t understand it. There are many adults who look completely “normal” to others who experience terrible pain and sadness. They have become successful at “putting on a happy face” or not talking about their depressed mood. Furthermore, suicidal thoughts are a common symptom of severe depression.
Frequently, in my job as a psychologist, I am asked to assess the suicidal risk of a teen or an adult. Past history of suicidal gestures is a big risk factor because past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. The second biggest risk factor is use of disinhibiting drugs or alcohol.
What can family and friends do if you know someone with these dual conditions?
- Talk to them about their depression and substance abuse. While the afflicted individual needs to get help, silence on the part of family and friends can make things worse.
- Learn about these conditions. Knowledge is power. Many depressed adults feel that their family members don’t understand their condition. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) have information about these conditions on their website.
- Be supportive. Support their decision to get help.
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