A Few Quick Thoughts on Robin Williams, Mental Illness and Creativity

by Mark Hahn

“. . . you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice [in your head] and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump,'” –Robin Williams (2006)

With the massive (mostly) well-meaning flurry of mental illness articles hitting the lines after Robin Williams’ suicide, I cannot help but be struck by how wrong most people commenting on the subject are. When you cut through all the crap, even after an official diagnosis of “bi-polar disorder” is given, there is little that anyone can do about it. Statistically speaking, the most effective “treatments” are sleep, exercise, reduced alcohol/drug usage and a healthy diet. These steps will benefit everyone, bi-polar or not. Psychotherapy and related drug therapies all shake out as almost completely ineffective in the long run.

So why are we as a society so fixated on a “cure?” Why do we need to justify everything as a “disease?” Probably, it has to do with needing to place blame on something other than ourselves. Robin Williams’ difficulties had to do with him being him. It is who he was. Life is a lot harder for some people than it is for others. For these people, some days are even harder still. During one of these, if you lose track of the thread that connects you with something outside your personal darkness, you might not even feel yourself jump. Maybe this is what happened yesterday.

Interestingly, Williams said he was never diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder. He had been treated for addiction and depression during the course of his life, but he was never formally diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder. In spite of this, most the major news organizations are siting this as the cause of his suicide in their headlines. On one hand, this takes the blame away from Williams and implies a failure in the medical community or with his friends and family – someone should have been there, or “cured” him, right? On the other hand, it puts the blame right back on him for not recognizing his problem and seeking treatment – was he just being bullheaded? Not everything can be treated.

None of us have any clue what Williams should have done. He had to make his own choices every day. Obviously, he was very successful in what he did publically in life. It also appears that Williams got a lot of satisfaction from his achievements, but in all his most telling quotes, Williams talks about feeling alone. In the end, his achievements and the accolades he received probably distanced him more from life than connected him to it. His stardom gave him something to do, but when someone feels deeply alone in the world, it is worse than anything else. His fame could not erase this. Many of Robin’s fans don’t seem to understand that they were not there for him in any meaningful way when he was struggling with his depression alone at night.

Williams was known for channeling his manic side into many of his acting roles. People responded to this aspect of his acting – we are all somewhere on someone’s mental illness scale and can relate. Williams ran with this part of himself. Lithium backed up by Thorazine (or some other powerful psycho-med cocktail) would have undoubtedly flat-lined his mood fluctuations temporarily and probably helped him avoid depressive plunges, but would it have left Williams feeling that he was still alive? Maybe the highs Williams experienced and shared with the world in his work were worth living with the lows in the end for him.

There is a saying in medicine that goes something like, “Cure the disease and kill the patient.” In psycho-medicine, the line where you consider the patient “dead” is fuzzy. It’s hard to take the pulse of someone’s spirit. But it is in our spirit where we find what matters most in life. Walking through all the bullshit in this world and not feeling is not living – all the good things in life are things we feel! The good goes with the bad.

Artists, actors and writers in general have a least a threefold increase in the incidence of bi-polar and other serious mood disorders and almost as high an increased rate of suicide when compared to the general population.

I am an artist. When I meet people and tell them about different things that I do, many respond, “You’re so lucky! I wish I could make art (or write or whatever we’re talking about).”

Usually, I just shrug my shoulders and tell them, “It’s more a curse than anything else.”

Happy people don’t typically make art, write or aspire to be a great actor. These are just things some people are driven to do. They can provide someone a way to get out of ourselves. Some people need this. We should all feel happy for Williams for being given so many opportunities to do so much in life that didn’t revolve around his private struggles.

Granted, I never met Robin Williams, just like the majority of other people writing about him after his death, but his death does touch something universal in all of us. It provides a point in history where it is hard not to stop and think about our own lives. Pause a moment to consider what really matters.

There is also something in the way that Williams entered our lives as a comic entity that makes his death feel all the more tragic.

“But only in their dreams can men be truly free.” -Robin Williams playing John Keating in Dead Poets Society