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Posted by on Aug 11, 2014 in Arts & Entertainment, Featured | 4 comments

Comedy, substance abuse and depression: reflecting on Robin Williams’ life and death

I learned about Robin Williams, 63, the old-fashioned way. My husband walked in the house and announced, “The world is a sadder place today.”[icopyright one button toolbar]

“Mom and dad just heard on the TV. Robin Williams has died.”

A quick search of Twitter confirmed the sad news.

And then the double-whammy: suicide.

According to news reports, Williams had been “battling severe depression”. Last month he had checked himself back into rehab “to fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment” to sobriety.

In 2006, he talked publicly about substance abuse and treatment.

A Good Morning America interview hints at the darkness of his depression:

“It’s the same voice thought that … you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump,'” Williams told Sawyer.

He continued:

“The same voice that goes, ‘Just one.’ … And the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that’s not the possibility.”

He elaborated in a People magazine interview:

“Cocaine for me,” Williams told PEOPLE in 1988, “was a place to hide… It slowed me down… And I was so crazy back then – working all day, partying most of the night – I needed an excuse not to talk. I needed quiet times and I used coke to get them.”

Depression + Substance Abuse Too Often = Suicide

Clinically, the two — depression and substance abuse — increase the risk of suicide.

We don’t know if there are “genetic as well as social or environmental factors that predispose an individual to an increased risk for both disorders” — substance abuse and depression.

But we do know that one increases the risk of the other:

The analysis revealed that the presence of either disorder doubled the risks of the second disorder…Further evidence suggests that the most plausible causal association between AUD [alcohol use disorders] and MD [major depression] is one in which AUD increases the risk of MD, rather than vice versa

Dark comedy

Last year the Express (UK) explored the relationship between comedians and depression. The Mail (UK) followed up in January: Why comedians ARE a little bit mad: Funnymen’s personalities are similar to those with mental health conditions.

What does it mean, that a celebrity as gargantuan as Robin Williams could talk publicly about depression and substance abuse … and yet succumb to suicide?

That it is still a mark of bravery to talk about depression (your own)? Despite a long list of notable depressives?

How do we, as a culture, begin talking about mental illness and alcohol abuse with the goal of helping, coping, preventing (rather than blaming)?

We can hear/see commercials for Erectile Dysfunction, for pete’s sake. It’s past time we talked openly about depression.

Can we find a silver lining in Robin’s death?

I’ll close with Smokey Robinson