Psychologists React to Robin Williams’ Death

Robin Williams

Shock and Sadness

How has the mental health community reacted to Robin Williams’ suicide? I’ve been reflecting on my own reaction as well as reading blog posts and news articles from other mental health professionals. Here’s my take on what we’re thinking.

Like everyone else, mental health professionals found themselves saddened and speechless at Williams’ loss. He was so unique and gave so much. He will be so missed.

But Why Couldn’t He Have…

It’s so natural for us to think, “But he was rich and famous – couldn’t he have brought himself out of this?”. There are two things we need to understand here:

Hedonic Adaptation – the term to describe the fact that we all get used to what we have. Almost all of us think that if we had more money, a new car, or more X, Y or Z we would be happier. And maybe, for a little while, we would. But we don’t stay delirious forever.Our minds adapt and whatever our current state soon becomes the daily grind. In the civilized world we already have more than most people. You probably already have more money and more stuff (cars, smartphones, TVs, etc.) than you had 10 years ago. Bet you’ve gotten used to it. Robin Williams had been famous for 30+ years. I’m sure he was used to it. I doubt it gave him the kind of joy we imagine it would give us. We are quite poor at what we call “emotional forecasting“: we think we’ll feel a certain way in the future, but we’re usually wrong.

We all say from time to time, “I’m feeling down today” and we think we understand depression. We categorize depression as a temporary state you can just “get over”. But deep depression is different. It’s a serious condition. Have you ever said, “I’m feeling a little cancerous today?” Probably not. That’s because we don’t think of depression in the same way. Yet.

Our “Pull Yourself Up By Your Own Bootstraps” Mentality
We live in a society that prides itself on individualism and self-reliance. We like to be proud of what our ancestors have done (think the “Greatest Generation”). It makes us feel good about ourselves. But we ignore how much help that great generation got as it struggled toward the good life (think the GI Bill in the US) and the obstacles they did not have to face that many people face today (poverty, drugs, etc.). We have to realize that not everyone can “pull themselves up”. Sometimes the obstacles are just too hard.

Depression is a Real Disease
One of the problems with depression is that we all feel a little bit of it at times in our lives. Even during a normal week many of us feel “down” at times. We assume that this is depression. It is not. Williams’ obviously suffered from a severe struggle with his emotions and no amount of “Hey cheer up!” or “Get over it!” was going to help.

Depression Often Can’t Be Seen
We feel more compassion for people who have disabilities that are visible. We feel sorry for people who have serious physical diseases or who cannot move parts of their body. But often you can’t see emotional distress. Oddly, even when we know someone has emotional problems it is easy for us to forget and dismiss this because we cannot see it.

We Need Better Treatments for Depression
The medications we use today were orginally developed 50 years ago and little progress has been made. The neurochemical serotonin has been the target of these drugs, and the idea is to raise the levels of this chemical in the brain. The solution appears to be more complex than this. But we don’t understand it all yet.

The lessons Williams has to each us: mental illness is real. Be grateful. Be helpful.

Other Psychologists React to Robin Williams’ Suicide

Ep 224 (Video): If Freud Worked Tech Support


A humorous way to learn about the Freudian defense mechanisms (actually elaborated by Anna Freud) of Displacement, Denial, Sublimation, Reaction Formation, and Projection. A little dream analysis thrown in. Who knows? Maybe Freud would have been good at tech support…(technically, this is a video version of episode 209).

Ep 223: Little Albert’s Real Identity – Time to Rewrite the Textbooks

[This] dispute … has been settled to the satisfaction of all neutral observers from journal editors to manuscript reviewers to … textbook authors who have seen our articles. The argument is settled…..I would turn to the question of why it took the field of psychology 5+ years to get this sorted out.”

What was the name of that baby in John Watson‘s famous videos in which he attempts to demonstrate that fears can be acquired through conditioning (pairing a loud noise with a furry animal)? A few years ago we were presented with information indicating that a boy named Douglas Merrite was the true identity of “Little Albert“. The data looked pretty convincing at that time. However, a few pieces of that data simply did not fit together for researchers Nancy Digdon, Russell Powell and Ben Harris.
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Ep 222: How To Remember Jokes

How to Remember Jokes

Mnemonic image for remembering 4 jokes: dead cat, flipping coins, toast and ice cream, twins.

How many times have you wanted to remember a joke at a party but you just can’t? Well, there IS a way to remember jokes and I have got 4 jokes for you along with a mnemonic to help you remember all 4 of them. I challenge you to listen to these 4 jokes, then listen to and picture my mnemonic images. Then wait a little while and go through the mnemonic image and I guarantee you’ll remember all 4 jokes.

Remembering anything for more than a few minutes requires not only repetition, but also something else that will make the to-be-remembered thing stick in your head. That thing can be a mnemonic device. In this episode I’ll use a combination of the keyword technique, crazy images and a modified approach to the method of loci. I’ll use your body to help you remember these jokes. Let’s have some fun.

Ep 221: The Facebook Experiment: Reaction from Psychologists

Facebook Experiment on Social ContagionYou may have heard that Facebook manipulated the content of user’s New Feeds during January of 2012 so that some users saw more positive posts than others, which other Facebook users saw more negative posts. They interpret this as an indication of Social Contagion on a massive scale (almost 700,000 Facebook users were part of the study). How did this affect these users? Did those who say negative posts become more negative and vice versa? The answer is that the research indicates that some of them – though a very, very few of them – did subsequently write posts that were similar to the ones that saw on their News Feed. How big of an effect is this? Is it unethical? Does agreeing to Facebook’s Terms of Use constitute “informed consent“. I examine these questions in this episode of The Psych Files.
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