A1 Suicide, and Celebrity: Robin Williams’s Suicide
A2 When beloved celebrity Robin Williams took his own life in August 2014, it sparked a conversation about the disease of depression and suicide. While other notable celebrities like Kurt Cobain, Chris Benoit, Ray Combs, Ernest Hemingway, Margaux Hemingway, Michael Hutchence, and Mindy McCready have taken their lives, Robin Williams’s death seems to have struck a particular chord with the American public. This may be because he is probably the best-known celebrity to ever have definitively committed suicide. He was a popular comedic actor who was familiar to multiple generations of the American public, and was known for bringing humor into people’s lives through the popular television situation comedy Mork and Mindy and later through a series of very successful comedic movies, as well as stand-up performances. Furthermore, much of his professional work directly addressed the topics of depression and suicide, most notably the film Dead Poet’s Society and severe mental illness in the film The Fisher King. In addition, Williams’s death seems to resonate with the many people who suffer from depression, because he had access to the best doctors and the finest medical treatments. In many ways, people seem to worry that if someone with Williams’s access to resources and help could not defeat depression and committed suicide, then all people with depression are at-risk of suicide. A3 Whatever the reason, Williams’s death has left many people speculating about the relationship between depression and suicide.
One of the problems that people have when trying to understand depression is that they confuse depression for sadness. As a result, someone like Williams, who appeared so happy on a surface level seems like he would have been immune to depression. However, sad is the opposite of happy, and, like happiness, is a fleeting emotional state. Depression is something more severe than sadness and is not a fleeting emotional state. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depression, major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and depression may make you feel as if life isn't worth living” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014). Clearly, these feelings go beyond the feelings of sadness that one experiences in day-to-day life and even beyond the normal reactions of profound sadness one might experience while grieving or experiencing another type of trauma. Furthermore, during episodes of severe depression, people “may even experience psychosis- seeing or hearing things that aren’t there” (Jacobson, 2014).
In addition, it is important to keep in mind that clinical depression is not the only mental illness linked to severe depression or to suicidal thoughts and ideations. Other mental illnesses may also feature depression as a component part of their etiology. For example, bipolar disorder is characterized by extremes in mood including both mania and depression, but the treatment for bipolar disorder differs from the treatment for depression. Furthermore, the mixed-depressive episodes that are symptomatic of bipolar disorder are actually more highly associated with suicide than depression alone. “Mixed episodes combine the racing thoughts of a manic episode, but with a distinctly negative instead of euphoric tinge. Mixed states in turn may deepen depression and make it more resistant to treatment” (Jacobson, 2014).
The exact nature of Williams’s mental illness is unknown. While earlier in his life, Williams had acknowledged periods of fleeting depression and acknowledged that he appeared manic in his work, he has specifically denied having been diagnosed with either major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. However, at the time of his death, “Williams had been seeking treatment for severe depression” (Jacobson, 2014). This has led many people to conclude that depression resulted in his suicide, but that conclusion may be an oversimplification of the events in his life. For example, shortly after his death, Williams’s family announced that he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disease that would have eventually robbed him of some motor control.
In addition, like many people who suffer from mental illness, Williams’s had a history of substance abuse. Current or prior substance abuse is a known risk factor for suicide. Even those who have become sober after a history of substance abuse may find that their biochemistry remains altered after years of abuse, putting them at an elevated risk, not only of relapse, but also of committing suicide. While there is no evidence that Williams had begun using substances again, he had entered a rehabilitation and treatment facility at the beginning of summer 2014. The stated purpose of his treatment was to focus on a commitment to sobriety, but the fact that he sought the help of a rehab suggests that Williams was struggling against addictive behavior patterns, even if he had not restarted abusing substances (Jacobson, 2014).
The reality is that no one other than Williams can really understand why he made the decision to take his own life. It seems likely that his underlying severe depression helped contribute to his suicidal ideation and led to the problem, but while approximately 16 million Americans suffer from depression, and almost all people who commit suicide suffer from depression, less than 4 percent of those suffering from depression eventually take their lives (Jacobson, 2014). Therefore, the relationship between depression and suicide is not a simple one of cause and effect. However, it is also not simply a matter of having an appropriate intervention. At the time he killed himself, Williams was actively receiving treatment for his severe depression.
This uncertainty can leave those suffering from depression or with loved ones who struggle with a mental disorder that causes depressive episodes to worry about the risk of suicide. While it might be reassuring to suggest that suicide is not likely, the reality is that in 2009, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, that over 37,000 people committed suicide that year, and that there were 1 million suicide attempts in the same time (Goldberg, 2012). Therefore, it is important to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms that suggest when a person is at high-risk of committing suicide.
The warning signs for suicide should be considered as a group when assessing individual risk. For example, men are almost four times as likely to commit suicide as women, but being male, on its own, is not considered high-risk of suicide. There are, however, known risk factors for committing suicide. “Over 90% of people who die by suicide have clinical depression or another diagnosable mental disorder. Many times, people who die by suicide have a substance abuse problem. Often they have that problem in combination with other mental disorders.
Adverse or traumatic life events in combination with other risk factors, such as clinical depression, may lead to suicide. But suicide and suicidal behavior are never normal responses to stress” (Goldberg, 2012). A person’s history also helps determine risk. A prior history of suicide attempts or a family history of suicide, family violence, physical or sexual abuse, a family history of mental disorder, and a family history of substance abuse all increase the risk that someone will commit suicide (Goldberg, 2012). Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that environmental factors can also impact the likelihood of suicide: incarceration, chronic physical illness, having firearms in the home, and being exposed to other people who have committed suicide all increase the risk of suicide (Goldberg, 2012).
In addition to risk, it is important to be aware of the warning signs of suicide. Clinical depression places someone at high risk of suicide. If a person seems obsessed with death, it is a warning sign of suicidal ideations. Engaging in high risk behavior that could lead to death is another sign. Talking about suicide or the feeling that one is hopeless, helpless or worthless are signs of a potential suicide. Engaging in behavior that seems directed towards the end of life, such as arranging ones affairs or saying goodbye to loved ones are also signs of a potential suicide. Ironically, an appearance that a depression has suddenly lifted may be the most surprising sign of an impending suicide; for those struggling with a severe depression, the decision to commit suicide may bring a temporary feeling of peace or may cause them to act “normal” in an effort to keep people from discovering their plans (Goldberg, 2012).
Finally, as Williams’s death indicates, not even the highest quality help in the world is sufficient to prevent all suicides. However, that does not mean that suicides cannot be prevented. It is important that any person discussing suicide be treated seriously and that he or she gets medical treatment immediately. Timely intervention is often able to help prevent suicide attempts, and provide treatment for the underlying mental illness that is contributing to the severe depressive episode. While a suicide is never anything less than a tragedy, when someone beloved like Robin Williams dies, it does serve to shine a light on the struggles of mental illness and the problem of suicide, which may, in turn, help save a life. Given that Williams devoted so much of his life to bringing laughter, happiness, and hope to others, it seems likely that he would be comforted by the idea of his death finding meaning by helping save the life of someone else, suffering, as he did, from a severe depression.
A5 Goldberg, J. (2012, July 22). Recognize the warning signs of suicide. Retrieved September 8,
2014 from WebMD website: http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-recognizing-signs-of-suicide
Jacobson, R. (2014, August 13). Robin Williams: Depression alone rarely causes suicide.
Retrieved September 8, 2014 from Scientific American website: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/robin-williams-depression-alone-rarely-causes-suicide/
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014). Depression (major depressive disorder). Retrieved September 8,
2014 from The Mayo Clinic website: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/basics/definition/con-20032977