Robin Williams suicide prompts heightened discussion of depression

Comedian and actor Robin Williams wrestled with depression throughout his career. Experts say the condition is often under-treated due to fear of cultural stigma. 

Reed Saxon/AP
This 2007 photo shows actor and comedian Robin Williams in Santa Monica, Calif. His suicide this week highlights the problem of addressing depression.

Robin Williams, who died Monday in what police are calling a suicide, had a long history of depression and addiction, according to those nearest the comedian.

Now, as friends and fans alike struggle to understand what drove the 63-year-old star to take his own life, many in the field of mental health say the discussion has opened an important window on a problem that is often under-treated due to fear of cultural stigma.

“Depression is a growing problem,” says Carla Sofka, professor of social work at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. The Centers for Disease Control recently identified depression as a serious and growing problem, while the US military has sounded an alarm at the increasing incidents of depression and suicide by both active duty and veteran personnel.

“This discussion around Robin gives people permission to talk about something that they otherwise might be too afraid to discuss,” Professor Sofka says.

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites are awash in such discussions, points out Sofka, who studies the relationship between celebrity and mental health issues. 

She notes that both celebrities and private individuals are opening up about their struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. “There is this cultural moment in which it is suddenly safe to talk about these things,” she says, even celebrities with more to lose in terms of public reputation.

“Twitter has been very active including several conversations about the crippling nature of depression,” she says. An example of the celebrity dialogue emerging in social media was the Twitter feed from Dave Foley of “Kids in the Hall” fame and more recently a guest role on “Hot in Cleveland,” illustrating that success does not always bring happiness.

Often, however, the individual most at risk is least likely to reach out in ways that might help, points out Sheila Hunt, director of community education for Pacific Grove Hospital, a treatment facility in Riverside, Calif. 

“They are afraid of losing a job, or what friends might think,” she says, so they ignore or hide it from those close to them.

“Many people will go to a doctor for a physical sickness or other medical issue, but they are much less likely to seek treatment for mental health issues,” she says.

“That’s why we need more education about the warning signs for people around the one that might be in trouble,” she notes, pointing to everyone from friends and family to teachers and ministers. Behavior to watch for includes sudden changes such as giving away prized possessions to friends or talk of “just wanting to go to sleep and never wake up,” says Ms. Hunt.

Such detection can be more difficult with an individual such as Williams, who has wrestled the twin demons of depression and addiction throughout his career.

Many assumed he had a handle on the challenges he faced, particularly as he had just recently returned from a stay in a Minnesota rehab clinic. Nonetheless, some friends suggest they began to see signs of new challenges to his mental health. Friends who saw Williams in the months leading up to the suicide say they noted a change in his behavior, particularly after his CBS sitcom, “The Crazy Ones,” was canceled in May.

In the Los Angeles Times Wednesday, longtime friend and fellow comic Steven Pearl said he’d seen Williams during the summer and was worried. 

"You could just tell something was off," Mr. Pearl said. "He seemed detached. It's hard to explain. He didn't seem like his usual self. My fiancée and I were like, 'Is he OK?' I didn't know it would get this dark."

Indeed, publicly at least, Williams appeared to have his challenges under control. According to a publicist statement reported in the L.A. Times, Williams checked himself into the rehab facility to "fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment" to his sobriety.

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