...a wake-up call for mental illness
News of the death of Robin Williams on 12/8/'14 stunned fans young and old. Comedians, actors, directors, many of the rich and famous who had been influenced by Williams paid their tributes. So, too, have millions of others now on social media in the first 48 hours since the first news of his suicide. Williams made his TV debut in the late 1970s TV comedyMork & Mindyas a strange and lovable creature from outer space. At the time I had an 80 hour week with job responsibilities as a lecturer at what is now the University of Ballarat, and community responsibilities as the secretary of the local Baha'i community. I watched little TV in those years.
Williams had been open about his struggles with alcohol and cocaine and in the past months had entered a rehabilitation centre to help him maintain sobriety. But many questions remain over his final months and what could have led to his death. This post attempts to answer some of the questions that will arise.
On the Hollywood Walk of Fame, dozens of fans congregated around Williams' star on Tuesday, 12/8/'14, leaving flowers and candles to honour the versatile actor. Williams' appeal stretched across generations and genres, from family fare as the voice of Disney's blue genie inAladdinto his portrayal of a fatherly therapist in the 1997 dramaGood Will Hunting. Williams won the best supporting actor Oscar in 1998 for that portrayal.
The 1998 movie,Patch Adams, in which Williams plays a medical student who battled convention to treat his patients using laughter, earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Some of the most humorous and touching scenes of Williams' from his favourite roles to his recipe for success can be found now in cyberspace.
In 1998 I was just about to retire after a 50 year student-and-paid-employment-life, 1949 to 1999, and did not learn of the film until several years after I had taken a sea-change and an early retirement at age 55. In recent years I have watched more TV, at least two hours a day on average and have seen much of Robin Williams.
Williams' career was launched in 1973 when he became one of only 20 students accepted into the freshman class at Juilliard and one of only two students accepted into the Advanced Program at the school that year; the other was Christopher Reeve. The Juilliard School is widely regarded as one of the world's leading music schools, with some of the most prestigious arts programs.
In 1973 my teaching career had just begun to take-off when I was teaching in South Australia's first open plan secondary school. That same year I was hired to teach in Australia's first human relations training program for trainee teachers at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education. Of course, I knew nothing of Williams back then and neither did the millions and billions who would come to know him in the next 40 years.
Williams said that the favourite role which he played was Oliver Sachs inAwakenings. He said that he saw the role as a gift because he got to meet Sachs, and got to explore the human brain from the inside out. "Oliver writes about human behaviour subjectively," said Williams, "and that for me was the beginning of my fascination with human behaviour."
"In his stand-up specials and chat-show appearances," wrote a reviewer yesterday in The Economist, "he never seemed hold anything back. Dripping with sweat, pouring out words in torrents, he seemed to have no filters between his buzzing brain and the outside world. He could be endearingly open and honest about his own problems, his addiction to alcohol and cocaine, even while improvising delirious flights of fancy and flitting from character to character. Viewers loved him for it. Mr Williams had a versatility that few comedy superstars have matched."1
In June 2014 Williams spent time in the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota, which helps patients maintain long-term sobriety. The death of Williams shook Hollywood, and colleagues mourned the loss of what many called a big-hearted man and one of the most inventive comedians of his time. "Robin Williams' suicide doesn't cross the line, but it comes very, very close to it," said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention(AFSP).
"Suicide should never be presented as an option. That's a formula for potential contagion. Adolescents are most at risk of suicide contagion; in recent years, groups like AFSP have also become particularly attentive to the role the internet plays in romanticising notorious or high-profile deaths, something it has long asked both the news and entertainment industries to avoid.
One family acquaintance was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as follows: "Williams always had this sadness about him, this melancholy.” He had never been diagnosed with clinical depression or bipolar disorder which is not to say he did not suffer from the ravages of these mental health issues. He had the money to afford the best treatment, but the sad truth is that, in some cases, even the best isn’t enough to save people." Mental health is a highly complex subject. I know a little about the subject having had to deal with depression and bipolar 1 disorder for over 70 years.
According to government statistics compiled in 2010, 60 percent of Americans with mental illness got no treatment within the previous year. People reported a variety of reasons—they couldn't pay for it, they thought they'd be fine, they didn't want others to learn about it. Even if that 60 percent figure is exaggerated, and even if conditions have improved, the problems are still widespread. And they are obviously not confined to the USA.
Although we’re accustomed to hearing about artists and their hidden "demons," Williams was such an effervescent, joyous presence that his struggles could put into sharper relief just how life-altering and devastating mental illness can be. They also put into sharp relief the seductive and insinuating quotient that is mental illness and, more so, when addictions and the frenzy of renown, celebrity, are mixed-into the equation. If he couldn't conquer it on his own, who could? The lesson would be, could be, one last, great contribution from an artist who has made so many contributions already.
"A quarter of the population suffers from mental health issues that could potentially drive suicidal thoughts," Moutier said. "This is a very important issue, from a public health standpoint, and one we need to bring to light."2-Ron Price with thanks to 1 The Economist, 12/8/'14, and 2The Washington Post,13/8/'14.
It is my understanding
from what I have read
about you, Robin, that
you never received the
and bipolar disorder..I
can hardly believe this!
Your addictions and your
health problems certainly
seem to indicate at least a
variety of bipolarity that is
known as cyclothymia, and
depression. I look forward
in the weeks ahead to reading
some of the analyses of what
the mental health issues that
you faced. Your death gives
society a wake-up call to deal
with mental health problems,
alcohol & the many addictions.