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How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?

Photo Credit: AFP


Robin Williams has long been  a hero to people in recovery. His drug humor always had the bittersweetness that comes from painful experience and his sheer brilliance and exuberance made many recovering folk proud to claim him as “one of us.” Watching him improvise, the presence of genius was visceral.

This makes his death—and some of the knee-jerk attempts to draw lessons from it—even more painful. We know that he had just left Hazelden when he died; we also know that he had publicly acknowledged struggling with addictions, even if we don’t know how this affected the beloved comedian.

What surprises and saddens me, however, is that while you could use some of Williams’ monologues as textbook illustrations of the “pressured speech” and “racing thoughts” that characterize hypomania and mania, he does not seem to have been diagnosed with or at least, come out about, having mental illness. In fact, he  told Terry Gross of NPR in 2006 that his manic antics were merely a performance and he’d never had “clinical” depression.

After appearing on a magazine cover for a story about medication, Williams said, “I was branded manic depressive. Um, that’s clinical, I’m not that. Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.”

Of course, he may have been trying to keep the highly stigmatized diagnosis private—or he may have refused to accept it. He may also have feared that accepting a diagnosis would mean taking medication that might affect not just his lows, but his art and his highs. As Dr. John Grohol, the psychologist who founded PsychCentral, put it in an editorial  note in his piece on Williams, “We acknowledge Williams himself has never stated to our knowledge that he was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder or depression. Yet given his behaviors and symptoms, it seems far more likely that he suffered bipolar disorder—of which depression is a significant component.”

Now, of course, we’ll probably never know what—if anything—Williams had. But if there are any lessons to be learned from this wretched tragedy, two seem clear to me.

First, stigmatizing mental illness is dangerous—and can be deadly. If someone as accomplished and acclaimed as Williams cannot publicly acknowledge “clinical” depression or bipolar disorder, we have a long way to go in making the world safe for people who suffer from these illnesses. When even today’s headlines about addiction and mental illness refer to struggles with “demons,” you know that stigma remains strong.

Whatever else is true, Williams’ gifts were clearly on the manic spectrum. Even if he never crossed the line into “clinical” problems, it’s worth acknowledging this. Understanding that conditions like bipolar, depression, schizophrenia and autism are not out of the realm of human experience—and can produce talent and creativity, not just disability—is critical to reducing stigma. If we know that these conditions—including addiction—are exaggerations of “normal,” not alien “craziness,” we will be a lot better at accepting those who are affected.

And when we see the gifts that can accompany these conditions, we tend to be less prejudiced and more understanding. Research  clearly links mental illnessautism and addiction with creativity across the arts and sciences. Of course, disabled people shouldn’t have to prove they are also gifted to be accepted. But it remains true that public acceptance of disabled people often follows when those whose gifts we have loved or benefitted from—Paralympians, for example—are open about their struggles. It’s sad that the typically kind, empathetic and open Williams may have felt unable to either accept his own mental illnesses, or to disclose them.

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