August 13, 2014

Robin Williams' Severe Depression: Keeping Things in Perspective

Robin Williams and Severe Depression: Keeping things in Proper Perspective 

Robin Williams’ tragic death has shocked and saddened us all.  Today we want to use this tragedy as opportunity to shine light on the serious disease of depression. It is important to know that, even in this day and age, there is much confusion and ignorance concerning the disease which can take away all of a person’s joy and take away his/her's hope.   Today we’re going to review the facts and burst some of the common myths that surround depression, as well as explain how it was possible for a successful person like Robin Williams to take his life.

What’s important to know is that although clinical depression is a serious psychological disorder, treatment for it is normally very effective. Later we will explain why Robin Williams’ death was a very special situation and not in any way typical. I want to stress that suicide, especially when a person is engaged in treatment, is very rare and that folks should not conclude from his death that depression is untreatable.

Some facts to remember about most depressive disorders:

  1. Depression is a very common psychological disorder affecting 1 in 15 people or 16 million Americans.
  2. Depression is usually very treatable with a combination of psychotherapy and doctor prescribed medication.
  3. Suicide and even attempts at suicide are rare occurrences.
  4. Myth – Willpower can cure depression. You can’t, as Dr. Laura used to say, just “snap out of it.” Depression is a medical condition/illness. 
  5. Myth -You can always tell if someone is depressed For example Robin Williams was seen laughing and enjoying dinner the night before he died.
  6. Myth - Depressed people are always are always depressed and negative. In fact Robins Williams had a very positive and life affirming philosophy and lived his life fully and in service to others.

Some facts about severe and resistive depression:

  1. Severe depression is a rare condition.
  2. It is usually treated, in addition to psychotherapy and medicine, with hospitalization. Even with this most difficult type of depression, with time, it is successfully treated. It just takes longer.
  3. The risk of suicide is greater in severe depression and Severe Depressionincreases when the client is:
  • Isolated and or lacks an adequate support network
  • Non-compliant with medication or therapy recommendations
  • Has recently experienced multiple external losses and stressors such as the death of a loved one, serious financial or legal problems and or crises such as, the loss of job or other serious, painful and untreatable medical conditions.  
  • When the affect disorder is complicated by substance abuse and addiction.

So why couldn’t Robin Williams be helped ?

Robin Williams’ death is disturbing because he didn’t suffer from the usual problems that lead to most suicides. He seemed to have it all and be on top of the world. He was wealthy and  at the peak of his successful career. He had a loving family and many friends, not to mention all of the many philanthropic and humanitarian activities with which he was involved.  Although we may never know why it happened, there are two factors which played an important role:

  1. His creative personality and comic style. (His stream of conscious type of humor placed him touch with the absurd mysteries and horrors of life. He, like other artists, had frequent contact with the darkest places of the soul)
  2. His heavy and chronic involvement with drugs and alcohol. His use of drugs (which I assume were used to kill the pain of his emotional torment) became physiologically habituated and at the same time obliterated the therapeutic effects of his medications.
  3. The medical state of the arts was simply not up to the complexity of his disorder,     

I want to conclude but stressing that although depression is a serious matter which can take away one’s joy in life or even the will to live, with professional help, the joy and meaning of life can be fully restored.   

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. submitted these remarks for Bridge Street 8 13 2014.

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