Robin Williams enjoyed what many would consider one of the most legendary careers in the history of acting. With his many memorable roles and comedic performances garnering dozens of awards, there are few who conquered show business to the degree that he did. But as high as he rose, Robin Williams’ depression and other health issues caused him to experience significant low points in his life, culminating in his tragic suicide in 2014.
Robin Williams is a case study for how someone so outwardly happy can struggle with their mental health in silence for years. As such, his death is a cautionary tale about processing unexpected changes in health in addition to preexisting depression and addiction.
In this piece, we’ll look at one of the greatest performers in history and discuss some underlying factors that may have hinted at Robin Williams’ personal struggles.
Reflecting on Robin Williams’ Life and Career
Born in Chicago, Williams first gained notoriety in California comedy clubs in the mid-1970s as an energetic comedian known for his ability to improvise. He landed a role in the sitcom Mork & Mindy before going on to star in feature films such as Jumanji, Hook and Aladdin.
While he was perhaps best known for providing the biggest laughs in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Morning Vietnam, he won an Academy Award for his heart-wrenching performance next to breakout star Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting in 1997. As it turns out, this drastic tonal shift may hint at what was lying just beneath the surface of WIlliams’ goofy exterior.
As a performer, Robin Williams is remembered as a wildly funny, extraordinarily energetic professional who electrified the silver screen. As a person, he’s remembered as a genuinely warmhearted individual and a friend to many.
What many didn’t realize, however, was that Robin Williams’ depression and mental health issues were likely playing a role in his life long before they were eventually publicized.
Robin Williams’ Mental Health in His Own Words
While Williams didn’t speak directly about his mental health, at least not on the record, he was known as a very candid person. Some of his interviews give us a glimpse of what he was like away from the spotlight.
Perhaps the most illuminating was an interview he did with The Guardian‘s Decca Aitkenhead in 2010, which began on the topic of William’s new movie at the time, World’s Greatest Dad.
After a few questions about the film, the conversation veered off into a more personal realm, and Williams opened up about how easy it was to slip into substance abuse. “I was in a small town where it’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid.”
Many people still don’t know that Williams struggled with addiction for most of his adult life, attending group therapy and AA meetings for decades.
He described the allure of drinking specifically and how the enjoyment of drinking can make “You feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it’s a problem, and you’re isolated.”
This wasn’t the only time during the interview that he spoke about the way his health played a role in his conception of self, which, given the events to come, would turn out to be chillingly prophetic. When asked about the open heart surgery he underwent in 2009, Williams responded, “Oh, God, you find yourself getting emotional. It breaks through your barrier, you’ve literally cracked the armor. And you’ve got no choice, it literally breaks you open. And you feel really mortal.”
Wrestling With His Own Health
It’s unknown how much of an impact Robin Williams’ depression had on his life or how long it affected him prior to his death. What’s known is that he was struggling with some other mental health conditions in the years leading up to the end.
In 2011, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. After his death, an autopsy found that this was a misdiagnosis — the actual condition was a lesser known but highly common affliction called Lewy body dementia. In Lewy body dementia, protein deposits build up in the parts of the brain responsible for memory, thinking and motor skills. Also called dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), it’s a disease that causes drastic fluctuations in a sufferer’s mood, cognitive ability and mental state.
It’s common for people with dementia to experience depression. It’s also common for people who’ve just received a serious diagnosis to experience depression. It’s likely that Robin Williams’ mental state, whether or not he was struggling with his mental health previous to the onset of his degenerative condition, began to worsen as he started to have difficulty with basic functions.
Three Risk Factors
When Robin Williams tragically committed suicide in 2014, the cause was unclear. Many people testified to the fact that Williams was depressed near the end. His wife, Susan Williams, tells a different, more nuanced story. In an interview with People Magazine, Williams talked about her husband’s failing health before his death: “It was not depression that killed Robin. Depression was one of let’s call it 50 symptoms, and it was a small one.”
It seems clear that Williams’ suicide was the result of his worsening dementia, but it’s true that he struggled with behavioral and mental health issues in the past. These can be significant factors that can push people to suicide.
The Importance of Access To Supportive Treatment
One of the biggest risk factors that Robin Williams faced in his life stemmed from his battles with dementia, depression and substance abuse — co-occurring disorders. This is the term used to describe mental health disorders that simultaneously affect some individuals addicted to drugs or alcohol. These cases are more difficult to treat and, as a result, are more likely to result in suicide.
What Can We Take Away From the Story of Robin Williams?
First, that a situation is never as simple as it may appear. Robin Williams’ depression almost certainly played a role in the way his life ended, but it’s not as clear-cut as it might seem.
Second, Williams’ situation should shine a light on others who are struggling in silence. Mental illness and addiction are very common. With more awareness, we can make sure everyone has access to the care they need.
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, don’t wait to seek treatment. Contact FHE Health and learn about the options available to you.