Psychologists React to Robin Williams’ Death

MichaelUncategorized1 Comment

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

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One Comment on “Psychologists React to Robin Williams’ Death”

  1. Physician assisted suicide has been a hot topic in the Canadian media lately. We currently associate terminal illness with horrible diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's, ALS and such "physical" conditions. There has been the push, and rightly so, for mental illness to gain wide recognition no different from other physical diseases of the body. However, one could argue that those who commit suicide due to severe depression had reached a terminally diseased state; and if euthanasia were to be permitted for physically terminally ill conditions, why would anyone work further on preventing suicide/euthanasia due to severe mental illness? Physician assisted suicide can be a slippery slope onto which we must tread with extreme caution.

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