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When the Laughter Stops: Lessons from the Life & Death of Robin Williams

Robin Williams Dead Poets SocietyThe recent death of Robin Williams has left us all reeling. How could this light have gone out? He was a comet blazing across the sky for so long we thought it could never end…especially this way. He was part of the fabric of our lives, woven into us through his prolific career and iconic roles. I remember his first guest appearance as Mork from Ork on Happy Days and then, along with so many others from my generation, enjoyed his spin-off series Mork & Mindy. From his sitcom launching pad, Robin Williams had so many unforgettable roles in movies that it is difficult for me to pick a favorite – Aladdin, Good Morning Vietnam, What Dreams May Come, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Fisher King, The Bird Cage – just to name a few! And then there were his stand up comedy shows, Comic Relief, and the guest appearances on talk shows in which the left us in stitches. How could his brilliant light go out?

I only knew Robin Williams from his roles, some articles, and interviews, but, like so many others, I felt like a little piece of me died when I heard the news. And then to hear that he was suffering from severe depression and committed suicide made me feel even sadder. It is a tragedy and bitter irony that someone who brought joy and laughter to so many was in such a pit of despair that he ended his own life. Life isn’t fair but, as mom always used to remind me when I was a kid, no one ever said life was fair.

I’m sure new information will come to light, but from what I’ve read, Robin Williams had struggled with drug addiction for years but maintained his sobriety at the end. However, he was suffering from severe depression and, from what his widow, Susan Schneider recently said, he had just been diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson’s Disease (PD). While the degenerative effects of PD are terrible for anyone to endure, it might have been a particularly cruel affliction for Mr. Williams given that a large part of his identity, probably to him and the rest of us, was his physicality, frenetic energy, and his rapid-fire delivery. Moreover, depression is frequently one of the effects of the neurochemical changes that go with PD. We might never know for sure, but perhaps the diagnosis of PD along with its neurochemical effects were too much for Mr. Williams to bear.

Depression and Suicide

I have read a number of reports that Robin Williams thrived any time that he had an audience but then was prone to melancholy when he didn’t have at least of couple people to entertain. From what I understand, he struggled with this depression even prior to the diagnosis of PD. What did Mr. Williams think and feel when the audience wasn’t there? When the laughter stopped?
Estimates vary, but approximately 1 in 10 adults in the United States suffer from some form of depression. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for adults between the ages of 45-64 has risen 40% between 1999-2011 and is higher than any other age group. I wish Mr. Williams had been able to heed some words of wisdom from one of his films, World’s Greatest Dad, that, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

As a psychologist who has worked with many people suffering from depression over the years, I know that depression can be overwhelming. While I don’t want to oversimplify what to do about depression (especially when compounded by Parkinson’s Disease), I want to find some way to honor Robin Williams and to help others. Many have said what a compassionate person Mr. Williams was, and I think he would have wanted others to find the help and hope that he wasn’t able to find for himself.

Help for Depression

  1. Seek help from a mental health professional – Schedule an appointment with a mental health professional such a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. You don’t have to struggle through depression alone. With regard to therapy, it works! Decades of research show that about 80% of people who receive therapy are better off than people with similar levels of problems who don’t receive therapy.
  2. Try a different mental health professional – If you don’t find a good fit from the start or aren’t experiencing some relief within a few months with your mental health professional, consider visiting a new one. I’ve heard many times that people “tried therapy” or “tried medication” for just a couple of sessions and then never tried again. That’s like saying I’ve tried eating out at a restaurant once, didn’t like my meal, and never went out to eat ever again! Finding the right fit with your mental health professional is more important than anything else. Don’t let the one bad apple of an unproductive experience spoil the barrel.
  3. Be active – With regard to depression, there is much truth to the notion that it is “easier to act your way into a different way of thinking than to think your way into a different way of acting.” The insidious part of depression is that it saps our motivation and wants us to withdraw. However, when we disengage from life, the mind just cycles through why our life stinks, why we stink, why the world is a horrible place, how our future looks bleak, and so on. When depressed and disengaged, it is practically impossible to NOT think such dark thoughts. In fact, the more we try not to think about them, the more we think about them. This is known as ironic rebound – if I tell you not to think of a pink elephant…oops, too late! You just thought of one! Being actively engaged in just about anything gives our minds something else to focus upon and disrupts the recursive thought loops that are part of the depression.
  4. Engagement is key – With regard to the above, one might argue that trying to be active while depressed is “running from our problems.” But when we look at the research at what makes people happy, it is typically about engagement in some form-hobbies, church, socializing, exercising, building, creating, and so on. To flip this perspective of running from our problems on its head, consider that depression causes us to run from life. A happy, fulfilling life is about interacting with the world while depression is about withdrawing from life to an inner world of looping dark thoughts within our minds. Importantly, most of the time these looping dark thoughts aren’t true to begin with or are at least distorted in some way. Just because thoughts are in our head doesn’t make them true. Sure, we might still need to address the contributing factors to our depression but disengagement does not accomplish this. It’s part of the problem and not part of the solution.
  5. Get physical – Exercise is as or more effective than any antidepressant medication (without any side effects) and generally free! You don’t have to do CrossFit, P90-X, or run marathons to get the full benefits of exercise. Just about 30-45 minutes of moderate exercise 4-5 times per week will provide the greatest benefit, although any exercise will help. Just find the type of exercise that works for you – rowing, running, swimming, lifting weights, yoga, Zumba, martial arts, etc. Work your way up to the maximum therapeutic “dose.” It’s fine to start with a few minutes per day and to work up from there.
  6. Be social – We are social creatures – we are meant to be in relationships with others. Some studies suggest that around 70% of our happiness comes from our social relationships in one way or another. Conversely, when we are isolated, alienated, ostracized, or in conflict, we tend to feel pretty miserable. One doesn’t have to be a social butterfly to experience the benefits of social relationships. Try reconnecting with an old friend, go to a meetup group, join an art class or book club – just some way of interacting with others on a regular basis in person.
  7. Connect with a higher purpose – Research shows that people who connect with something larger than themselves tend to feel happier. This could be a charitable organization, church, or some other calling. Volunteering is a great way to do this. As we volunteer our time to help others in some way, it can directly combat that the depressive thought “I don’t matter” while at the same time breaking up negative thought loops and improving social connections.
  8. Don’t wait to feel “in the mood” – Perhaps this is the most insidious part of depression. We don’t take some potentially helpful action because we are not “in the mood” to do so. But guess what? Inherent to depression is not feeling in the mood to do much of anything but disengage – which is a big part of the problem to begin with! If we wait to be in the mood to do something that is potentially helpful, we will just keep waiting. We are completely helpless until the elusive “in the mood” muse strikes – but she rarely ever calls. We must take the helpful action and the motivation to do that action will follow. I know that is bassackwards, but there is truth to it. Think of exercising as an example. There are probably times that you didn’t really want to exercise but did anyway. How often were you glad you did? We don’t always want to look both ways to cross the street either but we do so because we know it is good for us.
  9. Use the 5-Minute Rule – Inertia is one of the most difficult aspects of depression – it’s challenging to get much of anything started. Depression wants us not to do much of anything. Interestingly, once we get started, it’s much easier to continue what we are doing. We just have to get over the hump of starting. That’s where the 5-Minute Rule comes in. Going back to exercising, 30-45 minutes might seem daunting if we aren’t already exercising regularly. If we set the bar that high, we are likely not to get started and the perceived failure feeds right back into the looping thoughts of depression. Set the bar low – we can tell ourselves we will just do 5 minutes of this activity (whether it is exercise, folding laundry) and then we can stop at the end of that 5 minutes if we want to. We can continue if we’d like but we count the 5 minutes as a “win.” But once we have gotten over the hardest part of getting started, it’s often much easier to continue on that activity – sometimes for a good bit longer (but this is the gravy – the 5 minutes is still a win).
  10. Go fishing – Life is a lot like fishing, and so is dealing with depression. I’m not really a fisherman, but I have fished enough to know that I can’t catch a fish without throwing a line into the water. And, if the fish aren’t biting, I have to try something different – new area of the lake, different bait or lure, different depth, different time of day, etc. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Introduce change into the equation and see what happens. Keep trying new and different things and see what helps you gain some movement. Eventually some of these changes will help you start to move out of the depression.

Lessons From the Life of Robin Williams

We will all miss Robin Williams. He left a legacy of wonderful movies and roles that will be enjoyed for generations to come. To help us through our grief, one way to honor Mr. Williams is to continue to enjoy his movies. I am sure he would have wanted that. But I feel certain that even more, as the generous and kind soul that many knew him to be, Mr. Williams would not have wanted us to become overwhelmed by the crushing level of depression that he felt at the end. He would not want us to seek a permanent solution to a temporary problem. He would want us to find a way to embrace life. He would implore us to, “Carpe diem – seize the day.” I will, Mr. Williams, I will.


  1. James

    Yes I am still suffering from the loss of the late Robin Williams It’s too bad he didn’t try to get help At least try to talk to somebody Before he took his life. To me taking your life is not the answer . Life is Precious and we should try to live as long as we can .Sometimes in life we Encounter problems , Hardships and even death of a loved one .everybody has problems . Even sometimes if a person has a bad disease or knowing that he will die taking your life is not the answer. Yes suffering is not good. But neither taking your life and leaving your loved ones with the question why? That can be never be answered Robin Williams Was a great human great person and had a heart of gold Too bad he had to leave so soon Because we really need him right now to make us laugh And to help him heal if you would ask for it RIP To the greatest man and the Greatest comedian of all time May he rest in peace

  2. Tom

    Great post Mike! Two movies that Robin played the lead role in, “What Dreams May Come” and “The Fisher King,” had a big impact on me. Ironically, both movies are ultimately about overcoming depression and mental illness. Keep up the good work!

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