The Reason We're All Shocked by Robin Williams' Death.

Posted on Mon, Aug 25, 2014
The Reason We're All Shocked by Robin Williams' Death.

The world was stunned this week to learn of the death of one of the most beloved comedians and entertainers of our time. Robin Williams, the talented and versatile actor who entertained us and made us laugh for decades was found dead of an apparent suicide.

I think Williams passing stands out among other celebrity deaths for several reasons.  Robin Williams was such a talented and versatile actor that most of us found some way to connect with him through his entertainment. Whether it was his stand up comedy, his voice acting, his dramatic portrayals, or his charitable work, the breath and intensity of Williams career touched the vast majority of Americans.

The term “genius” is thrown around pretty loosely these days but I can think of few people that it applies to more that Robin Williams. He was a Julliard-trained actor who burst onto our TVs as Mork and went on to find unbelievable success in just about every genre that he attempted. 

What I think bothers so many people about Williams passing is his manner of death.   The concept that the man often considered to be the funniest people in the world could be suffering from such crippling depression that eventually led to his suicide does not seem intuitive at all.

I think that the apparent juxtaposition between Williams’ comic genius and his addiction, depression, and ultimate suicide should prompt us to highlight both the reality of mental illness as well as the evolving faces of depression and suicide.

Not only is suicide shockingly common in the U.S., the demographics have changed over the past decade or so. In 2011, 38,519 people took their own life in the U.S.  Though suicide has traditionally been considered more common in the fairly young and the elderly, the percentage of 45 to 64 year olds who ended their own life increased 40% between 1999 and 2011. 

I’m hopeful that the media attention that is being focused on Williams, his mental health problems, and his suicide will go a long way towards removing the stigma associated with psychiatric disorders. Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental diseases are common, real, and should be thought of as mental illnesses as opposed to character flaws. 

We should feel for and support our friends, family, co-workers, and patients with mental illness in the same way that we would if they had a medical or surgical disorder.  In healthcare, we should make sure that our patients feel comfortable talking about their mental health problems and concerns without fear of judgment. 

Robin Williams did an excellent job of not only being open and honest about his mental health and addiction struggles, he did it with dignity and by using his talent for comedy.  I hope that the rest of society can follow his lead and continue to push the flywheel so that we all see mental illness for what it is – a medical problem.


corley-pic-resized-600.jpgAdam Corley, MD, FAAEM, FACEP, is a Regional Medical Director for EmCare and practices at Brazosport Regional Health Center in Houston, TX. Follow Dr. Corley on Twitter:


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