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Robin Williams' Death Is a Wakeup Call for Mental Illness

Touchtone Studios

Like so many other people shocked and saddened by the news about Robin Williams, I thought immediately of his most memorable moments on film—the radio riffs from Good Morning Vietnam, the therapy sessions in Good Will Hunting, the celebrity impersonations in Aladdin. Yes, Aladdin. I know, it’s a Disney cartoon. But Williams’ turn as the voice of the genie was comic genius. I always thought animation was the only art form that could possibly keep up with such a quick, unpredictable mind.

Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the performer and the script. With Williams, those distinctions didn't seem so necessary. The high-energy, manic characters he played were seamless extensions of the comedy style that first helped him break into show business. Screenwriters knew this and treated him accordingly. The scripts for “Mork and Mindy,” the comedy that first brought him to national attention, reportedly had blank pages here and there—places where the writers figured they’d just let him improvise. It was a good idea.

Williams was not just a comic, of course. He won acclaim and at one point an Academy Award for his dramatic portrayals: The mischievous, tender teacher in Dead Poets Society; the shy, awkward neurologist in Awakenings; even the deranged, haunting killer of Insomnia. That’s an impressive range of emotions—so impressive that Williams was frequently said to have bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive disease as it's commonly known.

Maybe he did, although I could find no confirmation of that when I looked through the news files last night. The most direct public statement I found was from a radio interview a few years ago, where he said that he had not been diagnosed with bipolar or clinical depression. "No clinical depression, no," he said. "I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times." 

Even so, a few things are clear. Williams had a history of problems with alcohol and drugs. In recent weeks, according to his publicist, he had been battling “severe depression.” These things would be consistent with an act of suicide, which is how authorities suspect Williams died.

The media accounts of Williams' life away from the screen and stage are also suggestive. Here was somebody who seemingly had everything—family, talent, money, and professional achievement. But here was somebody who, for all of his success at creating laughter, apparently struggled to hear it. As one family acquaintance the Los Angeles Times, Williams “always had this sadness about him, this melancholy.” 

Earlier this year, Williams checked himself into a rehabilitation facility. And whether he needed help with addiction or mental illness—or, as is so often the case, with both—it’s safe to assume he got it. He had the money to afford the best and the sad truth is that, in some cases, even the best isn’t enough to save people. 

But Williams’ access to such assistance would have been the exception. The majority of Americans struggle to get decent mental health care, or any mental health care at all. Expansions of insurance, including those in the Affordable Care Act, are enabling more people to pay for treatments. And halting investments in facilities and programs, some the result of highly publicized tragedies, have helped countless others. But the mismatch between what people need and what they can actually get remains stark.

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. 

Why people didn't get mental health care, via HHS

Reasons why people didn't receive recommended mental health care, 2010. Source: HHS

We’ve come a long way since the days when we treated the mentally ill as freaks—covering up and denying their problems, holding them singularly responsible for their conditions, or locking them up far away in institutions. We’ve also learned a great deal about the interaction with addiction—and the extent to which both afflictions can have deep genetic roots or be shaped by experience very early in infancy and childhood. But we still treat it as a second-class disease. It’s evident in the choices we make as a society and, too often, in our actions as individuals. The stigma, though far less potent, lingers.

There's still a lot we don't know about Williams' state of mind and how he died. Maybe this story will seem totally different in a few days or weeks, once more details are available. But the signs certainly point to mental illness being a major factor in his life. If so, I hope people notice.

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. If he couldn't conquer it on his own, who could? The lesson would be one last, great contribution from an artist who made so many already.